Does reading count as play? We could answer this by expressing an opinion based on personal experiences of play, or we could draw on the academic literature in order to say yes, no, or maybe. There’s plenty of that literature to draw on (that tired old question that is ‘what is play?’ has done the rounds over the years), so I’m going to focus in on one fairly well-established set of criteria from the academic world: Catherine Garvey (1977) suggested that characteristics of play could be seen as:
1. Play is pleasurable, enjoyable: even when not actually accompanied by signs of mirth it’s still positively valued by the player;
2. Play has no extrinsic goals. Its motivations are intrinsic and serve no other objectives. In fact it’s more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end;
3. Play is spontaneous and voluntary. It’s not obligatory but is freely chosen by the player;
4. Play involves some active engagement on the part of the player;
5. Play has certain relations to what is not play.
[Adapted from: Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010, p.17), Reflective Playwork]
Reading, I would say, for those who like to read (and, importantly, when not being forced to read something) can therefore be play (it’s pleasurable; you might do it for the sake of it, just because you love reading; it’s freely chosen; you engage in it, get into it; you know when you’re reading something because you have to because of what it feels like). I write all of this because I’ve been thinking about books for children for quite a long time now.
I have several frustrations with the majority of children’s books I pick up and read to those who ask me to do this (I appreciate that, of course, some children can’t read yet and so need this support, but also that to those who can read a little sometimes someone else’s voice can lend something to the story). The main, and enduring, frustration has to be the one I label as ‘the learning agendas’. Firstly, however, there is the counter-argument, the appreciation, that books can be a good source of education for children. That said, my frustration is centred around the fact that there are just so many education-focused books out there for younger children and often the education is disguised in or as the story: it seems to me as if this is cheating children of a good story. Often, the education agenda will be as fairly innocuous as the development of more awareness of the numbers one to ten; sometimes it’s far too insidious for this playworker’s liking: take these titles I’ve found recently: Luke Tidies Up and Be Nice. Adults should stop trying to turn children into ‘model citizens’, I contest!
My next, and currently major, gripe is language use. Why do some authors insist on writing books for children using words that — I’m pretty sure from my experience of working with a wide age range — children aren’t using themselves in their day-to-day language? Before my argument, a couple of examples:
‘Are those silly goats too fast for you?’
‘Probably,’ said Mr Farmer wearily.
She lumbered back to the old barn.
‘I’ll get those goats out of the turnip field.’
‘You?’ they exclaimed. ‘You?’
I’ve never heard any child use the words ‘wearily’, ‘lumbered’ or ‘exclaimed’, ever! I rarely hear adults use them in conversation either. Now, I’m aware of the argument that is ‘language as prescriptive’ versus ‘language as descriptive’ (the first being that, in grammar for example, there are rules to be followed; the second being that, essentially, language evolves and the rules should follow this): I know that children can learn new words from books, and I’m usually of the prescriptive school of thinking when it comes to spelling, grammar, etc., but here I’m thinking that children’s books should describe the words they actually use. If reading is play, and not for adult learning agendas in this case, then the stories should reflect the children’s cultures. Whenever I read to a child from a book, I tend to change words such as ‘wearily’, ‘lumbered’ and ‘exclaimed’ to words more in keeping with their own language use. I’m looking to describe the story; I’m not looking to being a teacher. I’m not a teacher of children, which other people could do.
Another concern is gender stereotyping in children’s books. However, I’m not taking the usual tack here: I’m going against the grain because I get annoyed by token efforts to educate children about what a perfect world we could live in if boys could be depicted as princesses and girls depicted as car constructors or rocket ship captains, for example. A disclaimer is due at this point: I have no issue with either of the above taking place in the play; it’s the token aspect I object to. The fact is that girls often do have a predilection for the pink and sparkly, ‘Prince carries off Princess to the Land of Happily Ever After’ (and perhaps there’s a further discussion there to be had another time about social pressures), and boys often have a predilection for all things fast, whizzy, loud or explosive (or all of these combined). What’s wrong with books describing things as they are?
I’ve told a lot of stories in my time, and they’re always made up as I go along. I don’t include learning agendas or good citizenshipness; I try to use words that I know my audience appreciates, and I don’t pander to political correctness. The stories tend towards random journeys for no particular reason, quests that may or may not end up with jam explosions, nuclear meltdowns, dead animals, poo, or whatever takes the fancy of the children involved. I involve the children in the story and take on their ideas and so we form the story together (there may then be any combination of dead princesses, broken giraffes, super-hero failures, conspiracies or dream scenes, or any other fantastical arrangements). The storytelling is partly my play, sure, but partly the children’s too. We go with the flow, and if all the characters don’t get on or if they all die then so be it — it was good enough for Shakespeare.
Stories for children, spoken or written, should be alive, playful and play-filled, ‘real’, as in emotions — though true and not ‘token true’ — or fantastic (or fantastical or phantasmagorical, whatever the desired flavour). The slipped-in adult agendas of being nice, sharing, counting, tidying your room, all covered up with glossy expansive pictures, just doesn’t seem to me to satisfy the potential for play that reading can have.
Garvey, C. (1977), Play. The developing child. London: Fontana/Open Books and Open Books Publishing Limited. Cited in: Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork. London: Continuum.
Kilvington, J. and Wood, A. (2010), Reflective playwork. London: Continuum.