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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Characteristics of Play

I have started training as a playworker

Each Friday I meet with a group of others also wanting to train as a playworker and we actively engage in the learning with Meynell Walter.

We get homework every week to observe play, research play and examine our own attitudes towards play.

One of the homework assignments has been to write down the characteristics of play so tat we are able to recognise what play is. At first I did not want to do this, I don't feel comfortable writing down a list of things that should be present to inform that play is being engaged in.

But, as Meynell said, how do we know if it's play that we are observing if we are not aware of it's characteristics.

So I have thought about this.

I do not want to define play at all. One of the may things I have learned from children is that we adults should not be defining what play is. But maybe understanding what is and more importantly what is not play (pretending to be play) is a very useful tool to be aware of, even if I sense it. (Which makes me think, is play a sense, like smell, touch, sight... can you sense play?)

Two characteristics are enough for me, especially if it has to cover all types of play. More than two, well then it will start to exclude certain play experiences.



Choice is chosen (pun intended) based on not only my own observations, research but also dialogues with children about play. A few years ago I was working philosophically with children to explore how to create more meaningful experiences to learn about water and the waterworks (I was employed by Gästrikevatten waterworks in Gävle). Over a period of 18 months I worked once a month with the same group of ten 8-13 year olds. It started off with exploring how they best learn, and play was what they presented. By the end our time together the children had designed a game to teach how the waterworks functions… and I returned to the first dialogue and asked them if the game was play and if we had been successful? There were lots of "yes"’s at first that then moved into "no" as I probed… (the process of designing the game had been based on play, but the idea of making children play the game might not be “real play”). One 9 year old child put forward,” if there is no choice, it is not play”.


Choice of what to play. Choice of how long. Choice to participate. Choice to leave. Choice to adapt.

This means that children can take something adult directed that maybe starts playful (rather than true play), but transitions into play, for some or all of the children engaged. It can be with or without adults. If with adults children have power in the play to adapt, and leave, direct or follow. Autonomous play can occur with play-responsive adults. This is not saying that adults should be involved in all of the play, only that play can occur with adults and the presence of adults, but that the play that happens then will have a different dynamic.

I have very clear memories of the sensations felt in my own body of playing with adults, and how special, exciting and how fabulous it felt in a sense of belonging and well-being. They came into our world, we were important enough for that. We all laughed together. The games and play evolved with the added new skills and knowledge that pushed our own play further.

Most enjoyable of all was when the whole street of children and parents met on the back field to engage in a game of rounders, hide and seek or snow-war (building forts and then snowballing). I not only physically engaged in the play, but also vicariously. I remember watching how the adults played with each other, and, for example, that they threw snowballs harder at each other than they did at me, and I was grateful for that!!!! I learned that in a play ecosystem, playing fairly and inclusively meant adapting my play repertoire to meet the abilities and limits of all the others I was engaged with.

I chose to be in the situation. I remember always being able to leave the play and sit and watch, or go off and do something else if we wanted to, but there were few of us who did want to do that.

I know that in my work as a teacher who is play-responsive that I need to be constantly aware of the balance of play, teaching and learning. A small part of the day is an adult-directed lesson, which is always connected to “do the children want to engage?” Those who want to leave the experience (lesson) early can do, but are scaffolded to engage (not be force but by finding ways to make it meaningful for them), and the experiences are based on the children’s play, so that the chance is high that the children can take them over with their own play. The rest of the day is routines of eating, resting and transitions, autonomous play and scaffolded play (where I have set out materials to deliberately inspire certain kinds of play that the children are then free to choose to do, or adapt). I am walking the line of educator and play supporter. As I see value in both play and learning/teaching from the basis of Original Learning.


The experience they are engaged in provides a sense of joy. This does not mean that the child is outwardly smiling or happy, but that the child senses joy or satisfaction in the experience despite the frustration, hard work, emotional, social and cognitive labour or the physical exertion.

Joy is about feeling safe to take risks, feeling brave, and an ability to self-regulate big emotions so that they do not usurp the sense of well-being.

This means children can be laughing hysterically with each other in play, or quiet, they can be running around noisily with concentration on their face and a look of worry that they might get caught, or standing on the side observing actively, or children play-fighting in a well choreographed style where there is consent

There is a big difference for children between the above and being chased when they do not want to, or in a fight without consent, or standing at the side when they do not want to be. Adults, on the other hand, seem to find this difference much harder to distinguish and can often err on the over cautious side and therefore interfere when not needed. Pushing the observer child into active play before they feel safe, or stopping a well choreographed play fight.

I truly believe that if we are to add more characteristics then there is the possibility that we limit ourselves in our ability to observe the children's play, and will only be able to see our own adult version of what play looks like.

For more thinking about rough and tumble play check our my post

For more thinking about the observer child read this post.

For more thinking on love and joy in the early years, read this post (in Swedish too) and this post

Quote by Suzanne Axelsson (Interaction Imagination)

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