• Suzanne Axelsson

The story of Childhood and Play

What is the essential childhood experience of play?

This question was asked of me over on Instagram. And to try and get a wider perspective I asked others this question too and received a variety of answers.

This blogpost aims to answer the question and weave in some of those other perspective too.


Freedom, time, joy, imagination and exploration were the words most used.


I think, having now reflected a few days and had the benefit of reading everyones' answers, that the words I would like to use as balance and connection. Which I think has surprised me a little. I completely agree with all the words above, but when it comes to the actual experience of play it surely must be about the balance and the connection of freedom, time, joy, imagination, exploration etc...


When I remember back to my own childhood the adults closest to me were important, my parents and relatives, teachers and the adults in my neighbourhood. It was a network of safety that gave me the freedom. Not a total hands off, but a balance between hands on and hands off.

I write about this in The Story of being Invisible, that my aim as an educator is to be visibly invisible. In other words I give children the freedom they need to explore and engage with their imaginations while at the same time being there to create a safe place to engage in risk taking (social, emotional and physical) and also to be invited in to the play as well as inspire play and learning. It requires that I build relationships with each child to understand the freedom balance... how much freedom does the child need to thrive and evolve? How much closeness does the child need to thrive and evolve? And then act upon that accordingly.

It is not simply about being hands off and letting them get on with it, it is about knowing when to be hands off and when to interact. This is an essential part of Original Learning - the weaving of learning/teaching and play together as equals.. of space and time to play freely and space and time to learn from/with adults.

It is also a natural part of the play-ecosystem - where play, learning, adults, children, materials, the environment etc are all intertwined. We cannot take adults out of the ecosystem, they are a part of the natural balance, at the same time adults should not dominate the play ecosystem and manipulate it either (which has become the case for the vast majority of children).


As a child I had access to adult-free play - either in my room alone, or with my sister or a few friends, or outside in a larger mixed age group. And while these periods of play no doubt have had a massive impact on me as a child (playing in the ditch making magic potions and food, snaking through long grass and making dens, intricate chase games that intertwined with role play, building horse jumps with sun chairs and brooms etc and pretending to be horses, hide and seek in various formats) some of the strongest memories of play I have is when all the parents joined in too, and we played as a whole community. I can still feel that sense of joy, the sense of belonging, the sense of connectedness.

Maybe these times of playing with adults were so enjoyed because we also had the freedom... in other words the balance was the essential factor.


In play we are constantly making connections... with each other, with the world around us, with stuff, with ideas, with knowledge - often many of these at the same time. In my post The Story of the in-between I explore these connections. Maybe we are describing play as a thing as a product, when in fact it is a process or the "in-between" linking things together. Play is the connecting force, making sense of the world. There is a quote that keeps going round about synapse connections and play that I am not going to quote here because it is not scientifically proven, despite in being used as if it is. BUT it is probably not without an element of truth to it... when researching about how the brain makes new synaptic connections the following is raised

  1. engaging the whole body (exercise, hands-on learning)

  2. experiencing new things (wonder, challenge)

  3. repetition

  4. feeling safe (joy)

  5. a healthy diet

The first four of those can be experienced through play, so it is not unreasonable to say that play enhances the brain. Of course not all play is going to include all four points, so as adults (parents/educators) it is our responsibility to expose the children to a good balance of the above. Sadly schools (and this approach is being pushed down to an ever younger age) has too much focus on repetition, too little hands-on learning and whole body engagement, too little wonder and for far too many is not a space where they feel safe.

One has to consider the fact that there are many children constantly hampered by the fact they do not have access to a safe space for play and/or learning, in educational settings and outside of them. Prejudice against race, religion, gender, HBTq, ability etc etc make spaces unsafe for far too many children. Poverty also reduces safe spaces, access to healthy diets and exposure to experiencing new things.

So while you are here reading my thoughts about the essential childhood experience of play, take the time to reflect on the fact that there lacks equality in children's access to play. That play, too, has been colonised to promote the status quo, and that if we are to have a real dialogue about childhood and play then we need to start being open about all children. Yes, there will be some universals to play, but there are also huge differences.

I remember watching a nature programme about under the sea, it was a long time ago now, but despite not remembering the details of the programme one little part has stuck with me. That sea creature like dolphins and whales could be found playing while fish seldom did... and this was due to the luxury of time. The fish did not have the time to play because they were consumed with surviving, while the whales and dolphins were not in a constant state of survival and therefore time was freed up for play, which has helped them evolve.

If we apply this to children, then we are seriously putting children at a disadvantage when we do not make society safe for all children, only some.

We need to rethink how we are creating our play and learning spaces so that ALL children feel welcome and valued. We need to be teaching all the children in our care how to respect and value others so that safe spaces are being created outside of the educational walls too.

We need a better connection. We need to re-connect with those that have been disconnected by systemic otherism. We need to ensure all childhoods have equal access to play.


So the essential childhood experience of play? Belonging - connectedness - interaction

Imagination - curiosity - wonder

freedom - exploration - testing

time - space - joy

Original Learning.

It is balance.



For more posts about play that I have written...

The Healing Powers of Play

Love and Joy in the Early Years

Structure for Freedom

Autism - water play

The Story of Time

Harnessing the Power of Play

Original Learning

I realise, now, that I can write much more than this... but I like to keep my posts at about 5 minutes reading length, so that you have time to read them and more importantly time for you to reflect


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Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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