Playful Communication: the joys of the ‘non-functioning’

“Communication is about our ability to share our lives with other people”            

Working in play, particularly in disability and additional needs settings, has blown open my understanding of what communication is. The quote above from therapist and author Phoebe Caldwell is, to me, is the best explanation of where I’ve landed. Most definitions of communication I see or hear focus on the imparting and receiving of information, they usually also mention speech and writing as how this can be done. I’m not suggesting these definitions are invalid or wrong, just that I feel they largely miss the point; sharing. Our communication is the reason we are able to exist alongside each other and the effectiveness of our communication is what determines how harmoniously we are able to do this. It’s not just the imparting and receiving of information that makes up communication, it’s that bit in the middle, the bit where you are existing in the same moment as another person and choosing to explore that together. That’s where the truth and joy of communication lies, not in the mechanics, in the sharing.

Painting by Keith Haring

Speech is so often prioritised and seen as the ultimate way of communicating, and, that’s because for many, it is. Speech seems to come fairly naturally to most and from what I understand feels natural too, easy and satisfying. But not for everyone and if you take anything from this post I hope it’s this; speech is not the only way, the best way or the most ‘human’ way to communicate. When I’m able to communicate with someone without speaking I feel at my most content, connected and understood. People often mistake quietness or lack of conversation as a lack of things to express or desire to communicate. That’s not true, it’s perhaps just that talking, to them, is the most natural way to communicate and connect with people and therefore they assume, to everyone. I can speak, often very well, but talking often feels like a means to an end rather than an end itself, it’s for that ‘functional’ bit of communicating rather than that expressive, joyful sharing bit. Writing is different for me, when I’m writing in a way that feels natural it feels much closer to drawing than speaking.

De-prioritising speech is especially important in my line of work. A lot of the kids I work with don’t speak, can’t speak or perhaps speech just isn’t a form of communication that comes natural to them. That’s not to say speech isn’t important or useful, just that it is a way of communication that has no more or less value than any other kind; the way we jump or rock, the noises we make, images we create, the faces we pull, the way we move through and change our environment, the pauses we take to breathe and be, sharing touch and laughter and any other way you can think of that allows us to express ourselves. When kids face challenges in their ability to communicate we put a lot of emphasis on teaching and enabling them to communicate functionally, in doing this we also need to remember that a person’s inability to communicate is equally our inability to understand them. Whilst we create tools and put time into giving a child a way to ask for the toilet or a snack we also need to take the time to notice and respond to all those kinds of communications a person uses as they try to share their world. Ignoring these or dismissing these as less important than that ‘functional’ communication can cause us to isolate people in our attempt to understand them.

One of the many reasons I love working in play is that the play space is an environment where different forms of communication are already valued and recognised. It’s allows for, encourages and often even priorities those non-functional or non-verbal communications. In this way it creates a beauty and authenticity I think we could all benefit from if we took the time to explore it.

Phoebe Caldwell is an author and practitioner who works with people considered to have severe communication difficulties. She uses the technique ‘intensive interaction’ and has written extensively on the subject. Here’s her website where you can find more information including information in ‘easy-read’ formats;       

Play Diary: Tubes, Tubes and Temporary Playgrounds

Hello and welcome to another play diary This entry will be bit of a flashback to those couple of weeks in the summer where I got very into a bunch of cardboard tubes. Hope you enjoy!

Back in the summer I got the opportunity to go into a local play scheme and run a play session for a bunch of kids/teens with varying needs and abilities. Not really knowing a lot about who I’d meet or what they’d want from me I decided to focus on creating a play environment rather than thinking up activities or games. I think about play spaces a lot and I find working in this way; creating the space for the play to happen, rather than initiating or leading the play myself, is always exciting and challenging.

Changing a space changes the way we move within it, we enter the space and it has new potential; when a familiar space becomes a little less familiar the rules and expectations for what we do in that space get fuzzy around the edges making new room for creation, mischief and discovery. We’d had a huge haul of cardboard tubes appear in the art room at the playground the week before and i’d been desperately excited to do something with them. This felt perfect; it was just a question of how many I could fit in a taxi with me.

On the day I arrived at a high ceiling-ed, kind of chilly, gym hall carrying several cardboard tubes, parachutes, plastic and inflatable balls, a large blue net, several ropes and a large structure I’d made using strong elastic and (more) tubes. I set about creating a temporary playground. I had balls hidden under a net, precariously balanced tubes, a bubble wrap bag filled with more coloured balls and a rope strung up from the top of a door to the bottom of a bench with movable parts attached. I was pretty happy with what I’d done and looking forward to seeing things play out.



My first visitor was instantly drawn to a pile of loose tubes and began to build. I was super impressed with his patience and ingenuity as he problem-solved his way to creating the structure he had in mind. He wasn’t very flexible about what he wanted to create but was plenty flexible about how he would get there. Ten minutes later he walked of grinning without a glance at anything else in the hall. His work clearly done.

My next group were a young excitable bunch who wanted everything, all at once. The newly built structure was quickly dismantled and investigated in every possible manner, balls were kicked, thrown and pushed through tubes and in the shortest time the space looked completely different again. One child was enjoying spinning between moments of close inspection of the elasticated cardboard structure. I picked it up and he got inside with me and we span the entire thing around and around. I created a loop with a piece of spare elastic that I could stand in with him and spin whilst experiencing the pressure from the band around our lower backs. Another would not rest until he had exhausted the sensory potential of every object. I love to see this level of focus and exploration. Some played for a few minutes, some played the whole session and all played uniquely.

Throughout the day I saw the space morph between a place to run and jump or rock and relax. And although I was a little sad to pack up and leave I did it contentedly, feeling justified in the slight-cardboard-tube-mania that had gripped me for the last week.

Welcome to my “Play Diaries” series.  I do many, many things, but my favourite is being a playworker at The Yard Adventure centre in Edinburgh. The Yard is a fantastic and wonderful place;  primarily it’s a play service for young disabled people and/or young people with additional needs. We also run a public opening session every Sunday which i’m involved in the planning and running of. Here expect to find many messy, surreal and playful tales from the Yard and beyond! 

Check out my workplace The Yard and find out a bit more about what we do. It’s a fantastic organisation and place! Or find us on Facebook here!

Play Diary: Cinematic Cardboard

Welcome to the first in a series of “Play Diaries” I shall be writing and sharing on this site. I do many, many things, but my favourite is being a playworker at The Yard Adventure centre in Edinburgh. The Yard is a fantastic and wonderful place;  primarily it’s a play service for young disabled people and/or young people with additional needs. We also run a public opening session every Sunday which i’m involved in the planning and running of. Here expect to find many messy, surreal and playful tales from the Yard and beyond! 



The life of a cardboard creation is difficult to predict. If something I make is still kicking about after a week or so and looking anything like how it started I’m not impressed. I’m not one for sentimentality or preciousness about the things I make, I want each cardboard, duct-taped, painted and glittered creation to go to hell and back again. Anything I add to the play environment is simply a starting point; a nudge for a kid with a paintbrush, an idea, a joke or a creative destructive streak, to pick up and run with. So i’m happy to say these cardboard cameras didn’t last the week.

On Sunday I wondered about an incredibly busy playground dressed in a long black coat, baseball cap and bow tie, a silent but purposeful Spielberg-Keaton mash-up (at least in my rather niche imagination.) I carried two cardboard cameras, one more modern attempt with a large tube to use as a handle and one 1920’s style box camera on a dodgy bamboo cane tripod. Several times I’d set up and start to ‘film’ scenes or action shots. Something really great about this tact was all the different ways kids could get involved. They could watch the scene from a distance, simply enjoying it for what is was, maybe it would spark an idea for their own play. They could step in front of the camera and become performers or they could come ask me what I was doing and become directors, idea makers and set creators. All these things started to happen as it became less my play and more theirs.

Later in the week at an evening teen club they were strapped to trikes and bikes and zoomed around the playground, first as speed cameras and then as news cameras. A team assembled with a cameraman and presenter as interviews were conducted and vital footage shot. Watching this take place it was wonderful to see other kids drifting in and out of the play as it was carried forward by the core couple of kids/news team. Eventually this turned into a junk modelling session as everyone wanted to make their own cameras, and had ideas on how to improve on mine (moving parts of course!).

Its interesting to me that had I been walking around that Sunday with a real film camera the play may have looked very different. Not less or bad, just different. I feel that the temporary and imaginative nature of the cardboard cameras allowed for self-consciousness to dissipate and silliness to flourish. And what more could a play worker want?


Check out my workplace The Yard and find out a bit more about what we do. It’s a fantastic organisation and place! Or find us on Facebook here!

A Playful Manifesto #1

Within any finite set of criteria there exist infinite ways of being.

In play we discover these, play is a space where we explore our possible selves, and how we relate to our environment and other people.

We learn to construct space for ourselves, we build, we destroy, we rebuild. Again and again and again. As we do this we start to see what our niche might look like. That space we can create to exist true and content. A way to move through the world.

Playing is a radical act.

We live in a society where our value is so often defined by what we ‘produce’ or ‘contribute’. Play is always a process and never driven by aims, or objectives, efficiency or products. So to give ourselves the permission to play we must recognise the inherent value we carry as individuals. A value that is not linked to what we say or do but simply exists. And so; play is an act of compassion, nurture and permission.

When we play we close the gap between “what we are trying to do” and “how we are doing it”. The gap which frustrates us, causes us to compromise, to stretch and bend in ways that feel not quite right. In play we are perhaps our most authentic selves.

A playful life is one that moves away from seeking happiness and towards experiencing joy.

Play is messy, risky and fun.

Play is colour, light and sound.

Play is taking space, creating space, sharing space

Play is playing chicken with your boundaries and fears.

Play is being with nature

Play is free but not always easy

Play is yours

and mine

and ours

Play Escapes in the Peaks

A few weeks ago I delivered a workshop to ten participants at a retreat in the peak district. The workshop was designed to be a space for adults to explore play and reflect upon what it meant in their lives. This is an idea I’ve had hanging about since the same retreat last year where I spontaneously (but very predictably) built a fort. Seeing the joyous and excitable way people responded to this at the time got me thinking.

[image shows five photographs. 1. The word play drawn in chalk on the ground outside an open door. It is sunny and there is an arrow pointing inside. 2. Image of part of the inside space. There are comfy looking cushions on the ground, one with the gruffalo drawn on it, and a climbing wall in the background. There is a small geometric structure hanging from the ceiling with feathers inside. 3. This is a close up photograph of the structure in image two, the close up allows us to see it is suspended on a string and can move back and forth allowing the feathers too fall. 4. This is a close up photograph of a clear plastic timer with blue and pink bubble inside. The sun shines through large windows in the background casting a shadow of the bubbles on the floor. 5. An image looking down on the floor where there is some large brown paper, an assortment of coloured markers and a notebook.]

The session was a bit slow to start, I think most people didn’t really know what to expect and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to deliver, but after some self-conscious mumbling I remembered that I actually had a lot to say and got chatting. With this plus some great input from participants we slowly created an interactive and relaxed space. I started out discussing play, what it means and how we may or may not play as adults. For me this means talking about permission and self-value. To play means to do something purely for the sake of play. It is always a process. Letting go of a need to be productive in a society where we are so often told our value comes from what we can produce or provide is not easy, it requires recognising your inherent value as a person. As someone with a neurodiverse brain and a long relationship with depression letting myself experience play has been a huge act of compassion. This led to talking about the relationship between play and health, focusing on the ways play can help us recognise and meet our emotional and sensory needs. I introduced the concept of ‘Niche construction’ i.e. the idea of modifying your surrounding environment to meet your needs rather than trying to adjust how your body or brain works to fit the environment. This led perfectly to me finally telling the group it was time to play.

I had a bunch of resources for the group to use; ropes, sheets, art materials, lights, various fiddle toys, sensory objects and a wrestling mask. The group was really keen and barely needed any input from me which was exactly what I wanted. I loved watching as the space took shape. Some automatically gravitated towards playing and creating together whilst others drifted into their own worlds or created more intimate spaces in pairs. The atmosphere was relaxed and open. I was particularly happy to see people feeling comfortable and confident enough to drift in and out of the main group, it felt like I was seeing a very natural process take place.

I love the idea of a ‘play space’, particularly when that space is temporary. I feel like the temporary nature of this space enabled a freer play.  It eases the fear of making mistakes or doing things wrong somehow- concepts which can make play difficult for adults. It also makes focusing on the process and not an end goal or product much easier. The relaxed and free nature of the retreat made for a gentle transition into play. I’d be interested to try this workshop within different contexts and experiment with how to facilitate bringing people into that mental as well as physical play space.


[Two photographs laid out side by side show the workshop space at the beginning and end of the session. The first shows a medium sized room with a high ceiling and lots of light coming in from large high windows. The walls are climbing walls and there are various ropes strung across from the sides of the room. There are cushions and bean bags laid out on the floor. The second is the same space but now contains a fort. The ropes in the room have been utilised to string multiple sheets up to form a roof creating a smaller space within the room. Cushions and bean bags have been pulled into the corner creating a cosy looking space. Their are fairy lights inside and pieces of art on the floor which people have been creating]

I hope the participants took something with them from this experience and will continue to explore play for themselves. I’m very excited to do this again, I’m on the lookout for different spaces and opportunities and feel very positive about the ways this could develop. I’d love to hear your ideas!




The retreat I’m talking about here was run by the organisation Trans Bare All (TBA). TBA are an organisation who aim to improve the emotional wellbeing of Trans people through body and sex positive workshops, social events and education. They are fantastic and you should go check out what they do!