Reflective practice

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Reflective practice

what is it and why is it so important?

Facilitating children’s play is a complex and demanding role. To help in our work as playworkers we can draw on our knowledge of the play process and we can be guided by policies and procedures specific to our role and setting. However, these alone aren’t enough. The sheer variety of play behaviour by different children with different needs means we can never adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Also, as individual playworkers we each bring our own experiences and attitudes that influence our practice. Playwork Principle 6 The playworker’s response to children and young people playing is based on a sound up to date knowledge of the play process, and reflective practice.

Reflective practice is a structured approach which at its simplest means:

‘By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest;
and third by experience, which is the bitterest’. Confucius, Chinese Philosopher

3. Drawing conclusions and planning for the future.

1. Identifying the problem
 2. Reflecting upon or analysing the problem

Why is reflective practice so important for playworkers?

What is reflective practice?

Reflective practice is vital because:

Reflective practice is a form of critical thinking that considers our experiences and beliefs. This is to increase our understanding and improve our practice. When we are reflective we become more self-aware about the nature and impact of our role. This awareness creates opportunities for personal and professional development. When we try to understand a situation or event we draw on our own knowledge and feelings. We can also bring in ideas from different perspectives and theory. By analysing, comparing and combining these elements we can uncover new insights and improve our judgements.

Play is complex – children’s play behaviour is governed by their natural instincts and the effects of the human and physical environment, a ‘one size fits all’ response from us is inappropriate.

Play is still relatively little understood and playwork is a new profession. A typical book on child development may contain very little on play, and many playwork courses have, in the past, focused on agendas other than the fundamental play processes. This lack of knowledge makes it critical that we reflect on and learn from what we (and the children) experience.

When does reflection become reflective practice?

No playworker begins (or ends) their career ‘knowing it all’. We continually learn from our mistakes and successes and question our assumptions and the practices in our setting.

As individuals we bring our own memories, experiences, preferences and agendas to the play environment. Unchecked, these can overwhelm the playing child so that they

Reflecting or consciously thinking about our working practice is common to almost everyone, so what is special about the reflective practice technique?

no longer in control of their own play. The possible impact of this can often be assessed and corrected through reflection and close examination of our practice.

Fear – reflective practice sometimes means we have to look deep inside ourselves and ask difficult questions. It’s important for us to remember that playwork is a process where skills and knowledge are continually being developed and refined. Admitting that our practice can be improved doesn’t necessarily make us poor playworkers. On the contrary, it’s a sign that we care deeply about children’s play and are committed to facilitating it to the best of our ability.

Absence of suitable models – for many of us reflecting on our work experiences and the way we operate as playworkers may be new and perhaps unsettling. The good news is that reflective practice becomes easier with practice, much like learning to ride a bicycle – we may have a few bumps before we become proficient!

Support – reflection without opportunity to change and develop may lead to us feeling self-pity and hopelessness. If reflective practice is to become widespread, it’s necessary to open a dialogue with colleagues to check and compare our practice and to receive support and encouragement.

Why is reflection sometimes difficult? Given the benefits, why is reflective practice not used more often within our profession? There are a number of obstacles that can hinder the process of effective reflective practice: •

Time – thinking deeply about our practice and analysing why certain events have happened takes time and effort, yet taking time to reflect before, during and after a play session is vital if we are to improve our practice.

Honesty – reflective practice involves asking fundamental questions about ourselves and occasionally being prepared to admit that the way we work needs improving. Self-criticism can be emotionally and psychologically challenging.

Ideas to promote reflection

When do we reflect?

Keeping an open mind

Questioning why, what and how we do things

Accepted models of reflection2 emphasise reflection:

Looking from different perspectives

Asking ‘what if’ questions and considering consequences

‘in action’ – reflecting about what we are doing whilst are we doing it

‘on action’ – reflecting with hindsight after an event.

Examining theory and our core beliefs.

Models of reflective practice Single and double loop learning When we reflect on a particular situation or event we can adopt two different approaches. We can consider the event as a problem to be solved by coming up with different techniques. We can then continue to try different methods until we achieve the outcome we want. This is known as ‘single loop learning’1. Alternatively, we can focus on the root causes of the situation and question the assumptions, beliefs and values that led to the event in the first place. This is a more critical, open and creative approach. This is known as ‘double loop learning’. In playwork we adopt the ‘double loop’ approach to reflective practice.

To these we can add reflection: 

‘before action’

‘on inaction’3.

Taking all these together we can reflect before, during and after an event on what happened, what might happen or what didn’t happen. It may appear strange to reflect on what didn’t happen but we should remember that in some areas, such as playwork intervention, for specific reasons we can choose not to act in certain ways. Questioning our thoughts and feelings can be an uncomfortable experience. It raises the possibility that some of our actions and beliefs may be wrong. However, being open to being wrong is an essential part of flexible learning, as ‘certainty goes down as experiential learning goes up’4.

Too much certainty means we will take things for granted and become defensive of our approach. Whereas too little certainty can mean we are paralysed by indecision and unable to act on any new knowledge. Reflective practice can help us get this right and find the middle ground between unquestioning routine and uncertain chaos.

SLLRRRP SLLRRRP is a model of reflecting ‘in action’. When faced with a decision whether to intervene SLLRRRP is a model to consider the thought processes that go immediately before an intervention but also, how we respond to and learn from, our experiences ‘on action’.

Stop – Resist the temptation to jump right in. We give ourselves time to consider the best response.

– What’s going on? We gather information.

– What’s happening? We gather

IMEE At the point of ‘Reflection’ in the SLLRRRP process it may be useful to practice using IMEE5. This is a method that enables us to be more analytical in our reflections. It requires us to consider a situation and the potential for intervention, not only as things are unfolding at the present time but also in relation to our:

Intuition about what a good play

environment, moment or intervention should be like.

Memory of our own good play

environments or moments in childhood.

Experience of good play environments,

moments or interventions in our professional practice.

Evidence of what the literature suggests is related to good play environments, play behaviour and intervention.

Reflect – We consider whether we should

By practising this on a regular basis our knowledge of when and how to intervene gradually becomes more informed. We will be learning from ourselves, our colleagues and our interventions, the children and their play, as well as from play and playwork experts.

– Having considered our response,

Evaluation versus reflection

information using all our senses.

intervene and if so, how?
What would be the effect of our intervention, or non-intervention? What does theory tell us? What do our instincts say?

we react to the situation which may mean doing nothing.

– What impact have we had on the play process? Has our intervention helped or hindered the play process?

Practice – We continue to reflect and

develop our practice. Consistently adopting a successful intervention style requires continual practice and development.

The difference between reflective practice and evaluation can cause confusion as they share several characteristics. Both are a critical assessment of a situation with the purpose of gaining knowledge and ultimately improving practice. Both involve analysing evidence and acting upon the conclusions. They can occur before, during and after an event. However, there are several key differences. Evaluation is an objective and factual technique that compares what was planned against what happened. It determines the value of something when compared against an existing set of criteria. Evaluations try to be impartial, free from bias and avoid a conflict of interest.

Evaluation uses both quantitative methods (such as ‘How many?’, ‘How much?’, and ‘How often?’) and qualitative methods (such
as ‘How well?’, ‘How do you feel?’ and ‘What was learnt?’). Evaluation is either about proving something is working or needed, or improving practice or a project6.

to explain why those types were happening, by examining our attitudes towards the play or the specific children and playworkers involved.
As playworkers we use both evaluation and reflection according to our needs and the needs of the circumstances. For example, we might use evaluation:

In contrast, reflection is subjective and
is concerned with feelings and beliefs.
It allows us to examine ourselves and reveal complex thoughts and attitudes. Reflection can include evaluation as part of the process but it goes much deeper, taking different perspectives and looking at underlying reasons. Reflection uses qualitative methods better suited for exploring subtle processes, revealing causes and personal ‘triggers’, and exploring different contexts. When we reflect we analyse and judge our own actions to improve our practice. Reflection allows us to go beyond just collecting inputs and outputs and finding out why something happened. For example, an evaluation could tell us about the different types of play that happen in our play setting. It could tell us where, how often and by whom. A reflection could additionally help

as part of a quality assurance assessment

as part of an audit

in a grant application as evidence of need

to see whether we have met specific targets or goals.

We use reflection as a routine part of our professional practice as well as when we are confronted with more complex or uncertain events and behaviours that require us to ‘dig deeper’ to uncover explanations and possibly solutions that aren’t obvious.
As playworkers we consistently observe and listen
to children’s views and our reflective practice is an essential component in our ability to link our practice with the Playwork Principles and the ethical approach of playwork7.

Top tips for reflective practice

For playworkers and other professionals involved in children’s play Reflection is a term playworkers use to describe thinking deeply about what we do to improve our professional practice. It’s an essential part of our ongoing learning and should be considered as continuing professional development. Reflective practice is a structured approach which at its simplest means: identifying the problem, reflecting upon or analysing the problem, and then drawing conclusions and planning for the future.

• Reflection time

Some of us will reflect while doing another task such as driving home, exercising or relaxing in the bath and others benefit from writing or talking with others. Understanding when reflection comes naturally is useful in helping us know when and how to work things out.

• Don’t force it

We tend to prefer to reflect by either talking, writing, drawing or expressing, so using our preferred methods will help us to reflect more easily. For example, a playworker who prefers to talk things through may have to write eventually but that may be recording the outcome of reflective practice rather than the process of reflection itself.

• Working as a team

Reflective practice should be nurtured within our teams, so we need to make sure that there are opportunities for group and one to one reflection. This could be through team meetings, supervision support sessions or informally throughout the working week.

• Be a critical friend

The aim is to help others to critically question their practice, their decisions and actions whilst being supportive and understanding.

• Asking ‘what if’ and ‘why’ questions These sorts of open questions help us to probe different possible approaches.

• Keeping an open mind

To critically analyse our successes and failures we need to be open to new ideas or ways of looking at things. Nurturing a culture of trust within our team will support this.

• Active or passive?

‘Active reflection’ is where we make time to really think about a problem by actively feeding the thought process. ‘Passive reflection’ is where we reflect without really meaning to and thoughts and solutions present themselves as if from nowhere. In practice both forms of reflection are useful so sometimes we may need to allocate time to really think about a problem whilst for others it may be more effective to allow thoughts to flow freely in a more meditative way.

• Examining theory and our core beliefs

These will influence how we act so it’s crucial that we consider them in our reflections.

• It’s reflective PRACTICE

Without a definite outcome it’s just thinking about the problem. There should always be an outcome to our reflective practice – for example making a mental note to do things differently in future, attending training to help us in our roles, adding an item to a team meeting agenda, updating a risk-benefit assessment or discussing practice-based solutions with our team.

What we do with our reflections We reflect for a purpose – to improve our practice. If our practice never changes we aren’t responding to the children who use the play setting nor are we responding to the ever changing physical and cultural context in which we work. In short, if we reflect and improve our practice we are playworkers. So, what we learn from our reflections must be used. Here is an example of reflective practice from a playworker: ‘I noticed that whenever children were climbing high (or doing anything with a bit of risk) I would either try to cunningly deflect the action, or I would issue warnings to “be careful!” I asked myself what purpose this had and realised that it did not make the children safer or more careful – it just made me feel a bit better. It was like a lucky charm. If I didn’t say it and there was an accident I would feel guilty that I hadn’t tried to warn them. When I look back I remember falling from a tree and badly scraping the skin from my shoulders.

I also remembered that my granny (with whom we lived) was forever issuing gloomy warnings of death and damage if “we girls” ever became too independent in our play. So, when I hurt myself it was like a wish fulfilling prophecy. I began to realise that I am fearful of all sorts of things. I’ve read and learned various things about the importance of enabling children to take on challenges so that they learn to assess risks for themselves. So, I challenged myself to do something. What to do? A bit like when I gave up smoking, I needed
the help of my colleagues. We discussed the whole business of risk (it was interesting to hear their take on it). We made various risk assessments and discussed the weighing up of risk and benefit. We agreed that we would all try and support each other in our attempts to be less fearful and trust the children more. My colleagues pick me up if they hear me saying “Be careful” and we regularly discuss how it’s going. I’m finding it difficult, but I am getting better. The children’s play hasn’t changed but the message I give them has.’

References Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness.


Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010) Reflective Playwork: for all who work with children. London: Continuum.

Hughes, B. (1996) Play Environments: a question of quality. London: PLAYLINK.


Smith, M. K. (2001, 2006) Evaluation for education, learning and change – theory and practice. [Accessed 29 May 2018].



Bolton, G. (2010) Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development, 3rd edition. London: Sage.


Palmer, S. (2003) Playwork as Reflective Practice. In: Brown, F. (ed.) Playwork: Theory and Practice. Buckingham: Open University Press.


June 2018 © Play Wales

Play Wales is the national organisation for children’s play, an independent charity supported by the Welsh Government to uphold children’s right to play and to provide advice and guidance on play-related matters. Registered charity, no. 1068926 A company limited by guarantee, no 3507258 Registered in Wales