• Suzanne Axelsson

The Truth About Play

The more I learn about play the more I feel that the whole truth about play is not being shared.


Recently, I have been enjoying looking at historical photographs of children at play. What has struck me is how segregated the play was (and probably still is in many places). Most of the photos are of boys at play, when girls are present, more often than not, they are doing stereotypical girl things, or on the periphery (of course not all the time).


Today there is a lot of talk about how play is in decline, and the negative impacts this is having on the well-being of children, but also the future - children with a lesser sense of well-being will evolve into adults with mental health issues. I am not disputing this, but, it is only one side of the story. Play is becoming more accessible to everyone - girls are seen more engaged in all kinds of play, boys too, and there is an increased awareness that children with disabilities are also included in this play. I look at those historical photos of boys at play, and realise I would not have liked to have grown up then when I would have been prevented to engage in many forms of play because it was not gender suitable for me. To be honest, with the knowledge I have now, I would have hated that.

When I am Palestine I see that only young girls can be seen outside at play, and groups of boys are visibly playing at all ages. Girls are not allowed to ride bikes, straddling a bike is deemed most inappropriate for them.

When I was a young child in the1970's and 1980's I was aware of the play divide between girls and boys (sometimes we played together though). I was also aware that the one girl who loved playing soccer was also labelled a tomboy and it was something of an anomaly. Worse still was for the boys wanting to engage in stereotypical girl stuff getting called all sorts of things, usually girl things, as if they were an insult.


Play has come a long way in the right direction - girls AND boys can safely engage in a wider spectrum of play. Of course there are places where this has still not come as far as it needs to be for real play freedom, and all genders are often limited by social expectations.

Children, I find, are constantly seeking to belong. And part of belonging is knowing your own identity and how to behave, and how others behave. All play connects to this one way or another. Who am I, what can I do, how can I interact with others, am I liked? Being liked is a way of belonging and feeling safe. It doesn't necessarily mean being the most popular, but we all need to feel liked, and loved.


We do a lot of stuff to be liked. That means we play in ways that the social environment deems appropriate to prove we are worthy of being liked.

If we, as adults, are open to the multiplicity of play for all children then it will follow that all children will be able to engage in all types of play. I see in the last 30 years of working in early childhood in Sweden how play has changed... it is more acceptable for boys to play with dolls, and for girls to be boisterous - but even so, when I wear a Spiderman T-shirt I often get asked about whether I am a girl or a boy. On one occasion I got asked if I had changed into a boy because of the T-shirt... which of course I answered no, and told them that superhero stuff is for everyone, and that I liked superhero stuff and thought it was fun to wear T-shirts with images of them. The following week several of the girls came wearing Spiderman caps, or tops... suddenly having permission to wear what they want without compromising their female identity. I purposefully wear male coded clothes when I work with young children (not all the time, but often) to practically demonstrate that I do not have to dress or behave in a specific way to prove my female identity... just be a decent, considerate human being.


As an autistic person my understanding of play also differs from that of the standardised idea of what play is. My play can be still, quiet, alone - where it can look as if I am not playing. It can often be vicarious, with no need to engage in something physically risky as I have experienced the thrills (and fear) by observing others.

Often this kind of play is deemed as non-play by many definitions of what play is. And there is a push to encourage children to play with others. This hierarchy of play of solitary, side by side, and then social play perceived as levelling-up, rather than simply different kinds of play that we all need at different times of our lives to make sense of the world. None is better than the others, they are simply different ways to experience our own context, and some are better for some situations than others depending on experience, well-being, knowledge, skill, etc. I go in to this in my book that will be published in autumn 2022.


I also feel sometimes frustrated with the hands off approach that is being promoted to adults when it comes to children's play. As I write in my book, a healthy play relationship with children is a mix of hands-off and hands-on.

Historically children were supposed to be seen and not heard. They were very controlled when with and around adults. Freedom came from being outside the adult gaze. The problem with this is that children are not always great when it comes to self-regulation, or how to include others that are different from themselves, or how to overcome bias and this can negatively impact the play quality for children who are different, or shy etc.

Today the problem is that children do not have the time and space to play freely, they are always being watched in an effort to take care of them, or to ensure they are properly trained for the future.

Finding a balance between the children's autonomous play and scaffolding that play so that it is inclusive, respectful and values all the participants is essential. The early years and schools can have a pivotal role in this, as we can create time and space for play, but also respond to the play by during our adult interaction time provide activities that allow the children to acquire the skills they need to be successful in their play. This is at the heart of the Original Learning approach. By successful I mean that every child can experience joy and choice within their play experience and are not forced to be something they are not in order to belong.

Play, I think, is not just for children, and that adults should not be excluded from children's play as if they are always interfering. In a way play is not the issue. It is autonomy. Every human needs a sense of autonomy for their well-being. During childhood play is a major contributor of autonomy - based on the my definition of play as simply the two words joy and choice (it must include both to be play - some descriptions are more specific, but then I think they exclude divergent players). Joy and choice can also be a part of learning, lessons, teaching and understanding. What we choose to learn, how long for, and with joy rather than dread, or disinterest - this could push schooling into the realm of play.

The problem is that schooling takes up SO much time and is presented in a way that does not harness the brain's natural way to learn - the wonder, curiosity and joy that motivates learning and understanding are stripped away for a more efficient fact filling, forced repetition and testing on a time schedule that does not allow understanding (probably for the majority of the children) - it lacks autonomy and joy. To know how the children learn, to know what they are interested in, and to understand how we can best teach, adults and teachers need to spend more time observing children's actual autonomous play. Not as a break from the learning but as the most essential thread of learning.

Play-responsive educators then know how to design spaces, activities, experiences and lessons that will engage the children and maximise their learning - regardless of age... from babies to late adulthood. Children who are curious will learn more and a broader spectrum of knowledge than those forced to learn facts for a specific task (assignment, test).


Play is complex.

Play is choice and joy (and a host of other things too... but there should ALWAYS be choice and joy for it to be genuine play). Children forced into play situations that require them to hide how they identify is not true play for them - as there is fear that they are found out. Children who always have to follow the direction of others is not true play as they lack choice, and fear offering direction in case of repercussions. Play requires action and re-action. But being forced constantly into a position of reaction strips away that sense of autonomy. Our role as adults is to scaffold the play and the learning so that children can feel safe and brave to be who they are, and to be accepted in the play. And that all children learn about rights and responsibilities so that there is a balance of direction and following so that everyone is listened to and feels valued.

This cannot be done if we have a hands off approach. it cannot be done either if we have a constant hands-on approach. It requires balance.

To know...

  • when we are interacting - as play equals,

  • when we are intervening - to scaffold the play, and

  • when we are interfering - disturbing and destroying the play.



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