plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

How might children describe their play? There is, quite often, a jumping off point in writing, and in thinking about writing, and the jumping off point for this post is this: what are the words that adults use to describe the play that they see?

So, we might use words such as: messy, dangerous, nice, beautiful. Some or all of these come loaded with layers (us adults are built up of layers, like onions, that we’ve absorbed from our own societies, the places where we grew up, the people around us, our genders, our learning or the preferred things we’ve retained, etc). So, ‘messy’ might be loaded with negative or positive, artistically inclined or disrespectful; ‘dangerous’ might be irresponsible or exhilarating; ‘nice’ (my own personal pet hate!) might be loaded with appropriate, adult-friendly, or bland and socially conforming; ‘beautiful’ might be loaded with . . . what?

Adults have a particular way of seeing, and we impose this on children — either directly or indirectly. Children might describe some of their play as ‘nice’ because that’s a value-loaded word handed down to them by adults. How might children describe their play in their own words though? Hang on, I need another jumping off point . . .

Bob Hughes’ play types. The playwork readership of this blog will have these play types etched onto their skins like tattoos! For the non-playwork readership, and briefly, Hughes read a lot (let’s make that one clear), and produced A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types (originally in 1996, added to in 2002). Other taxonomies, classifications and lists are available, but Hughes’ play types have become the currently accepted industry standard. That’s not to say that that’s it, job done, no more need be thought on the matter. In fact, Hughes himself writes:

Although we now acknowledge the current existence of sixteen different types of play — there may be more . . .

Hughes (2012, p.96).

Hughes’ sixteen play types, then:

Communication play, creative play, deep play, dramatic play, exploratory play, fantasy play, imaginative play, locomotor play, mastery play, object play, recapitulative play, role play, rough and tumble play, social play, socio-dramatic play, symbolic play.

If you’re interested, you should go look them up: the explanation of each is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice is to say though that the play types taxonomy was ‘produced to enable those who worked with children to call similar playful routines by the same names, to sing from the same hymn sheet, and to be clearer and thus more specific about what they were observing when they watched children playing.’ (Hughes, 2012, p.97).

So, this says to me that the play types are adults’ words for what they saw children doing when they played. Yet, how might children describe their own play? I’m going to ignore Hughes’ given reasonings for devising the taxonomy (i.e. that we adults might all be able to describe play in the same way), and indulge in a thought exercise of looking at play from children’s perspectives.

How can we possibly know what play ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ like to a child, or how it might be described by a child? We can only really know about the play of our own childhoods. We could ask the child, but then the play that’s happening is no longer the play that was happening. So, I come back to Hughes for the next jumping off point: the idea of ‘problem immersion’. That is, briefly and for these purposes here, imagining things from a child’s perspective: if I imagine descriptive words for play, from a child’s perspective, partly based on my own play experiences, I might come close.

My final jumping off point is Hughes’ IMEE method of reflective practice. That is, I shall keep in mind what my Intuition tells me, what my Memories of my own childhood tell me, what my twenty-odd years of Experience of observation of children at play tells me, and what the Evidence of the playwork literature tells me.

My points of reference, my jumping off points, therefore are:

(i) What are the words that adults use to describe the play that they see?

(ii) Hughes’ play types, observed playful routines; adults all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.

(iii) Problem immersion and imagining descriptive words for play, from a child’s perspective: based here on my own play experiences.

(iv) My intuition, my childhood memory of play, my experience of observation of children at play, my reading of the evidence of the playwork literature.
Play types from a child’s perspective: speculations (unfinished)

Whilst these ‘potentially child described’ play types do, in places, cross over with Hughes’ play types, it’s not my intention to just think of a different word for each of those in his list. There’s also some cross over with what other thinkers and writers have written.

This list is also, unlike Hughes’ taxonomy, not meticulously researched; nor is it methodically and scientifically researched with planned-out observation and experimentation (although there is my ongoing xyz years’ of experience). As such, it is very much speculation.
Chilling play

I don’t know how long that word has been around, in this context, but I don’t remember it being used in this way when I was a child. However, this child-word type of play (if indeed it is a child-word) is listed here to highlight the evolution of language. It’s also here because children now don’t seem to do too much ‘relaxing’, ‘just watching’, ‘quiet play’ — they chill instead. (Or maybe I’m out of touch and I don’t even know it!) If I had the word, as a child, I’d probably use it too (or that awful concoction that is ‘chillax’ — though that is an adult opinion and so should be cast out here!)
Dangerous play

Two thoughts immediately strike me here: just as Hughes’ work has been constructively criticised in some quarters for its male perspective (he could also only draw directly from his own childhood), so is the possibility here with mine. Also, as previously noted, ‘dangerous’ is a value-laden adult word. However, this is one of those times, I suggest, when an adult value-laden word can get used by children in different ways. So, ‘dangerous’ is right, just as much as ‘bad’ could mean good, etc. I’ll stop whilst I’m ahead on this one though because the point of a child or teenage language, maybe, is that the adults don’t get it, or that the adults get it hopelessly wrong! I have to concede that I’m an adult now.
Diss play

Not to be confused with Sturrock and Else’s (1998) dysplay, which is another animal altogether. Diss play, perhaps, refers to the gentle, and not so gentle, art of antagonism. It is an art. It is a communication, as is ‘whatever play’, below, but diss play is played harder. It might also be ‘grief play’ or ‘I gonna knife you, bruv play’, etc., depending on what part of the country you’re in. (There is, I know, at least one other reader here who gets that last reference!) Perhaps ‘diss play’ and ‘whatever play’ come under a joint heading: Bugging play, perhaps, or Yeh, right play.
Dizzy play

Caillois (1958) identified ‘vertigo’, but the child’s word is dizzy: spinning around for no other reason than to be dizzy (you know you did this too!), rolly-poly, cartwheels, etc.
Fighting play

Adults tend to heap such physical play with value-laden words such as ‘play fighting’ and even ‘rough and tumble play’. They’re the ‘good’ type of fighting. However, I’ve often heard children get excited about the ‘fighting’ they were going to do later. ‘Fighting’ is just fighting. There are other words for ‘real fighting’, perhaps.
Freaking out play

Whilst thinking about ‘chilling’, the other context for this word came to me: chilling as in ‘frightening, scary’. Children, en mass, can scare the life out of some adults! Children can scare themselves, and others too, with their play. Sometimes, a critical mass takes shape: a group of children at play can bounce off each other to such an extent that something almost frightening takes shape; something odd and weird and freaky. I certainly had moments of childhood play where I just ‘went bananas’, ‘freaked out’ because I needed to. It was still a form of play (and I’ve definitely seen it happen in children I’ve worked with — a knowing in their eyes that suggests they’re kind of saying, ‘Go on then, work with this!’) It’s still a form of play, but a freaky utterly discomforting kind for the adult.
Girls’ play/boys’ play

Perhaps this one needs scrapping before it’s even written because the concept of gender specific play is passed down to children from adults. However, it’s in for now because ‘typical’ girls’ play or boys’ play can be, and is, played by members of both genders. In my childhood, girls didn’t usually play football round my way, though girls now add a whole new dimension to a previously mostly male play experience; also, if I got involved in ‘girls’ play’ (so dolls, or songs, or skipping) when I was a child, though I might still be involved, I still would have known it to be girls’ play.
Whatever play

I include this one tentatively, bearing in mind what I wrote about the child or teenage language being something adults are necessarily a step removed from — ‘whatever’ is a word in use that I can only have an educated guess at. However, in this context, I’m thinking: if I were a child now and I wanted to play around with a whole bunch of things at once — including communication, assertion, identity, role, power dynamics, etc. — then saying ‘whatever’ whenever I could irritate someone else would do the trick! Of course, this type of ‘child-described’ play is also subject to local dialect, nuance, level of streetwiseness, etc. (as is, probably, all of these speculations).
This list is paused here. It is to be thought on more, to be continued. How do you think children might describe their play?

Caillois, R. (1958), Man, play and games. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press (2001).

Hughes, B. (2012), Evolutionary playwork. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing – the Colorado paper. IPA/USA: Triennial National Conference.


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