Adults and Play - interaction or interference?

January 10, 2019

My last post, The End of Play, provoked more thoughts - not only in me but in others and questions were asked by several about whether adults could play with children or not... and what exactly is the impact of that play?

 

And I think there is no one answer to this, because I think adults play with children in different ways... sometimes as a play leader, sometimes as a teacher (connecting the learning), sometimes as a follower of the play... but I think it is seldom adults manage to play as equals, me included. I think this is part due to the fact of how children see us... we have a different status, therefore our very being with the children makes changes to the play - but that does not necessarily means it is an interference. In a way deliberately always stepping away from the play could be seen as an interference - in the sense that play with adults is simply another play language, and playing with all ages is essential for children to learn how to interact with society...

 

What I think adults can struggle with is entering the "play zone" - they might be playing, but have they connected with the actual play that is going on, or is it like parallel play... I described it like being parallel worlds/universes - the context might look the same, but it is not, and if we are not genuinely engaging in the play then the risk for interfering rather than interacting increases.

 

I think it is a little like a mentioned in my last post about a "play soul"..

we are all born with a "play-soul" - it helps us learn, connect with the world, with others etc... and as we get older we trade in this play-soul for other activities and other truths...

I think the play-soul allows us to splash in puddles and not care about getting wet, play with dolls and stuffed toys without a shred of embarrassment and even hear them talk or connect to their emotions, it allows us to cross over that line of real-fantasy without being aware of it (yet if asked, and given the time to think about it, know it is there), it is a power that allows us to laugh and find joy in the small things, it is curiosity, wonder and imagination, it is creativity and risk and discovery...

 

So over the years most adults seemed to have lost touch with their play soul, or have traded it away! I think this makes it harder to connect with play. 

And I do not think it is just about being curious, or creative or... it is about the whole package of play. Of course many adults talk about their inner child and a sense of freedom that brings... 

I am always interested how so many children are trying desperately to grow up so that they can be free... that adults and children look at each other as if they are free...

 

Children that play tend to be free of worries... worries tends to consume play. David Attenborough in one of his nature films about the oceans talked about the luxury of play in marine animals... and that there are very few that actually play... most are busy surviving all the time that there is no time for play. 

Children have fewer responsibilities, and tend not to understand the consequences of their actions, so are not burdened by that like adults are.. they are free to get on with it... and learn with hindsight much more than adults do... and of course, this is exactly as it should be. Making mistakes is a valuable way of learning... and to be able to do this in the safety of play is essential - risk not hazard or danger. Risk to fail, risk for a minor hurt, risk for falling out - not a dangerous outcome, or a serious injury or social exclusion/bullying.

 

So, as educators we need to reconcile our mission to teach with the child's need to play. This is why I coined the phrase "Original Learning" because it weaves play as a natural and organic part of the learning. (Here is a  brief description of Original Learning  if you are interested.)

 

So can adults play with children? Or does play only truly exist without adults?
I think that very much depends on who you ask to define the play.

It would be very sad indeed to think that all adults are incompetent at play.

I remember as a child how I loved it when my parents, or the parents of my friends joined in our play... building snow-forts etc in winter, playing games in summer. It was so much fun to see my parents play, it was a great feeling to see that they thought it was fun too (as they laughed and enjoyed themselves too) - this was incredibly empowering, for me, at least. On these occasions our parents became a part of the play... they entered our play universe.

 

There are probably hundreds of play universes out there... which can also mean that not all children are going to be able to connect with each other either - that they need to learn each other play languages in order to connect.

 

I think the biggest problem for children's play is not that adults want to play with them sometimes, but that children are controlled more by adult fears of safety - traffic, stranger danger, falling, injuries etc  This means that the space made available to children's play has been much reduced.

Back to David Attenborough - I have been watching Dynasties with my own children over the new year period and what struck me is that many animals have much smaller territories and that this impacts everything... there is not space to hunt, they need to go into the territories of other packs/animals to be able to find food, which results in clashes - and also encounters with humans which nearly always does not bode well for the animals. What I am trying to say with all of this is that the animals are not thriving, they are surviving... and we have pushed children into this... they have much smaller play territories now... and sure they survive, but they are not thriving.

If there is not the time and space to play, then school becomes harder, because they have not let off the steam they needed to in order to sit the required time...

 

Of course I would LOVE to see schools change... but at the same time, this is putting all the blame on the schools... it is a problem for the whole of society to create space, time and trust for play - for the sake of developing healthy relationships and their education/learning.

Children are institutionalised more and more and for longer and longer. Don't get me wrong, I love working in the early years, preschool and school are enormously beneficial... but only if they are done right, otherwise they are counterproductive. So we have to think about what is right... and how long should children be in these institutions for their benefit, and to be aware that the rest of the time is for the convenience of the parents (who work to afford the extras in life, or need to work to survive)

 

I end with the below film - and interview with Tim Gill talking about this reduction of the children's territories...
I have not actually answered the question if adults interfere or interact... because really we are doing both, what we need to do is be aware of the impact of our actions and our words, to think about what play means to us and what it means to the children in the group... and to work on building play relationships with the children... and reconnecting with your play-soul.

 

Although I do have to comment on the fact that I have gone round Stockholm play-spaces and have NOT seen large groups of 6-7 year olds playing without adults...  In fact I have found it very frustrating not to be able to send my own children to play-spaces here on their own, because there would be no-one else there, except for very young children with their parents... then they preferred to play in our own garden without parents giving them sideway glances all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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