The Problem with Play
Often I find play is being interpreted too normatively. The play that is described is mostly the doing of play, which relies on adults noticing the actions of children engaged in adult defined “play”. Various dictionaries describe it as spending time doing something enjoyable or for pleasure rather than something serious or practical, and that it is something children do. In fact it’s probably easier to write a list of play activities than it is to define play because I think it is a personal state of being. I have watched children engaged in the same activity and for some of them it is clearly play and for others it is not, and then there are those children who are somewhere in between and I think either they are unsure themselves or that they are masking enjoyment rather than actually experiencing it. I have, as a child and adult, masked enjoyment in order to gain access to that sense of belonging.
Burghardt (2011) writes about the need to feel safe and unstressed in order to be able to engage in play and I think for far too many children their actions are not play but seeking out ways to feel safe and brave in order to be able to achieve a state of play. Equally problematic is the fact that for some children their play is being perceived as behaviour that needs to be corrected and therefore their brain is unable to access the doings and beings that will positively impact their personal development trajectory. When I asked my neuroscientist husband what play is from a brain’s perspective he replied it is the brain’s way to adapt to a complex world, and that endorphins are released to make it feel good to keep the body doing what the brain needs to help the whole body and being adapt - whether that be a sense of well-being, cognitive, social, physical or emotional development, connecting with others, surviving/thriving and more.
The problem with play is that we think we know exactly what it is and in our daily lives those definitions have been oversimplified and stereotyped and filled with bias resulting in a too narrow window to view the entire play ecosystem. Gone are the days (hopefully) when children should be seen and not heard, but yet this is still felt as an echo in adult attitudes towards play - children and play are frequently described as noisy rather than making play sounds. The statement let children be children is problematic if our view of the child is not that of the competent, curious, caring child open to the wonders and possibilities of the world with their own experiences providing knowledge and developing skills, and is instead seen as a being that requires instruction, control and a level of protection with the assumption they know nothing and lack skills.
The phrase let children play is equally problematic depending not only on our view of the child but also our understanding of play. Over the years terms like play-based learning, guided play, and purposeful play risk adults confusing fun activities designed by adults with children’s autonomous play. This is one of the many reasons for developing the Original Learning Approach to create a space that did not view play and learning as separate entities that sought out to playify lessons or schoolify play but simply that play is seen as an integral part of learning, teaching and understanding and that all parts are needed to create a whole - the kind of whole that is greater than the sum of all its parts. This is why I started using the term play responsive. The play is the children’s autonomous play and as educators we respond to it in our teaching. We don’t seek to make lessons “playful” but instead ensure that they are filled with joy and wonder where children’s curiosity and imagination can thrive, that they have time to reflect and build their own knowledge through meaningful interactions with materials, experiences and others, where risk taking is a part of the creative process and getting it wrong doesn’t feel dangerous, and the children feel listened to by their peers and their teachers. The ten essential threads of Original Learning is about creating a learning flow which can/could be every bit as enjoyable as play flow.
Play-based could result in some centres and schools basing their lessons on play, and it makes no difference how play-based the lessons are - they are not play, and if there is not enough time for the children’s autonomous play, and the lessons are more about curriculum content being made fun while still adult controlled rather than how the children are actually playing, then we are endangering the children's well-being and ability to develop to their full potential.
This might be seen as semantics - why play responsive rather than play-based? But I feel the point of semantics is to be able to see the words afresh, from another perspective and to peel off the layers of bias that have been both visible and invisible to us… are we really aware of how play is being hijacked by adults? Are we fully aware just how much pedagogy is being pushed into play, whether it fits or not? Are we aware that how we view play with a specific lens (pedagogical) impacts how we interpret and provide permission for play - that play that is not obviously, to the adult, leading to the development of the child is seen as behaviour?
I think the term free play is troublesome too. A term that frequently gets used to describe play free from adults, but maybe we should think of it as free to play... free to express through play? Providing a new way for us to think about play - that play is for everyone, of all ages and therefore free from adults implies adults are incapable of playing with children, or that children are seeking to always be free from them. Which I don’t think is true at all. I think adults can play with children if they are capable of putting their agenda aside and participating in the rules of the play mutually decided by all the participants, either explicitly or implicitly. Adults always come with power - their size, knowledge, experience, strength, language etc means they have the advantage, but that does not mean they have to control the situation. I remember when I was a child how I loved it when adults joined our play, it made me feel important, seen and valued, and that what we played was of value. We could laugh together, make mistakes together, learn together and learn from each other - it made us feel like equals - it changed the balance of normal life where the adult is in control. History and cultures are filled with traditions that are about hierarchies being erased for a day through play and festivities… May Day being one of them. Hyenas are extremely hierarchical, and it has been seen that in play the lowest pup in the hierarchy rankings, that usually is picked on, is treated as an equal in play.
There are times when adults join the play with a pedagogical and social agenda - and while this can be extremely valuable to scaffold those children who need support to access their rights, we need to be careful not to label this as play. It is a form of teaching. And if some children are constantly being scaffolded to be able to join in the play (who has decided what kind of play they should be joining in?) then when do they get the time to be autonomous - when is their play free?
Children are all developing at their own rate to get to where they need to be and play is a vital part of this development... after all the brain is releasing endorphins so that it feels good so that we continue to do that - the brain wants us to learn/develop this way. What I think we should be doing is supporting each child's trajectory and not forcing them to follow a standard one that is not in alignment with how their brain is evolving and adapting to the world. We wouldn't force a child who is just learning to crawl to start to walk, and make them feel bad for not being able to walk, or prevent them from engaging in play connected to crawling and discovering and connecting to ensure that they were spending more time to learn to walk. It doesn't make developmental sense. Much of what they are doing when they are crawling is giving them the knowledge, strength and skill to be able to walk - and its all done through play. This is the same with all areas of development. This does not mean we don't support children in their development and let them get on with it, it means we need to observe the children and understand where they are right now, what kind of trajectory that they might have and to scaffold them in that. Children need to be cared for to feel safe, valued and brave; they need to be exposed to the new - to discover possibilities; they need to be challenged appropriately - so they can feel the thrill; there is much children need from us as adults - including space and permission to try things out.
Most are not tidy developmental lines going in one direction. I also think every child has multiple trajectories... my youngest for instance at preschool/school was advanced in his maths and spatial awareness, but very immature in his social skills; he could hyper focus on things that interested him but could not muster any motivation for the stuff in life that didn't. So I constantly sought to use his strengths and interests so that the school system, who liked to focus on his weaknesses and deficits and how to catch up and/or change, did not reduce his self esteem entirely.
As a teacher of children I think it is important that we always remember that children see themselves not only through their own eyes, but also the eyes of the adults and their peers. Peers quickly pick up via the adults, which children are seen as the problem, as they are the ones constantly being controlled and changed. It is vital we create spaces for EVERY child to shine in both play and learning so that children have the possibility to participate in play as an equal not weighed down by the views of the adult.
Maybe we should be talking about play freedom? When bias, prejudice, hierarchies and stereotypes are finally abandoned and ALL children can access a full range of play that their brain needs? Where all children are given the time, permission and resources they need to achieve play flow, and that he play informs the pedagogy so that teaching can create lessons that enable learning flow.
Burghardt, G. M. (2011). Defining and recognizing play. In A. D. Pellegrinin (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play, 9-18. Oxford: Oxford University Press.