Poor play: this magical, ineffable, sublime and often highly personal affair has been infested by an instrumentalist rot. Once such a thing’s set in, it’s prone to acceleration. The message is clear from this writer and playworker: play is for play’s sake; however, this essential message about play is weighed by all manner of adult agendas swilling around at the periphery, and some individuals and organisations of nominally playwork flavour may have forgotten what play is. That is an aside. The purpose of this writing is to shine a light on the general swill out there: a swill that sees play in ways often very different to the way that children (and playworkers) do.
First the lament (or, as Arthur Battram puts it in the comments below, the ‘play wails’) and then down to the nitty-gritty of the research:
Play has its benefits. This much is accepted. However, if you were to ask a child (hypothetically, because the actuality of such an endeavour could be seen as unethical) what the benefits of their play were, I’m confident that (supposing they weren’t playing the whole ‘just tell the adult what they want to hear’ game) what they’d say would be markedly different to what an agenda-driven adult would say. Benefits, to the majority of (albeit sometimes well-meaning) adults, can turn into aims and targets. Play becomes a tool, an instrument, towards reaching a certain aim. It is this instrumental rot, this mindset (‘set’ being entirely appropriate here), that I rally against.
Not everyone who interacts with children, or who has a vested consideration for them, is a playworker. This I appreciate. However, the adult agendas wrapped up in such areas as education, politics, health (and even brand awareness), to name just a few, with regards to the consideration and treatment of play, begin to weigh heavily: they’re making me nauseous. Poor play: I’m sick of the agendas.
The Playwork Principles (PPSG, 2005) aren’t perfect by any means, and they’ve been subjected to critique by various authors over the years, but one of the eight statements therein does strike a chord here: ‘For playworkers,’ declares Playwork Principle 4, ‘the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas.’ This is a rallying call to those out there reading this who know full well what this means. These are difficult times in terms of funding for play provisions and for playwork: this is readily understood. The coalition government couldn’t sweep away the previous Labour Party Play Strategy quickly enough in 2010. Austerity has bitten hard, the bottom line of Tory policy is money; more potently, however, austerity, the Tories, the neo-liberal machine are all wrapped up with an inability to comprehend the idea and the actuality of play. If play doesn’t ‘produce’ anything, then play is seen as pointless. Enter the instrumentalist agenda: if play is purposeful, it can be funded.
It shouldn’t be this way. Regular readers of these pages will know my disdain for the current (money- not people- obsessed) obesity agenda linked to children and their day to days. To this I can add an uneasiness at the usurping of play by education, future fixers, and in some ways therapists too. All ‘use’ play for instrumentalist ends. Some wrap up their (sometimes well-meaning) concern for the children in their scope of consideration with an inability to perceive what play is, for those children. Play is what play is in the moment; its benefits are what benefits the child or children at that time (yes, I am also aware of the deferred benefits argument); the instrumentalist rot of adult agendas should not be allowed to set in.
Herein ends the preamble. The meat of this post is concerned with research undertaken in order to substantiate my previous claims. This research is, of course, not exhaustive. However, of the recent national and international articles posted to various publications (and a couple of older ones for good measure too), I can as yet find no out-and-out example of promotion of play for play’s sake. One comes close, but still there are issues: in Which is the only country to protect in law the child’s right to play? (The Guardian), Aditya Chakrabortty reports on the Welsh government’s positive regard towards children’s play but the reporter still adds that ‘Yet play teaches children to resolve differences.’
Why does play have to be ‘for’ something other than itself in the writing and thinking offered up by others? (By ‘others’ I mean ‘not those of a playworking persuasion’). Play, if it has to be ‘for’ something, is ‘for’ its own ends.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has just had her office publish a report titled Playing Out: a Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity. Whilst play has been thrown into the spotlight by this report, it is unfortunately chock-full of instrumentalism, often blurred through the lens of ‘benefit’. Yes, children’s play is important (because of an implicit respect for children and their ways of being, their rights, them, perhaps?), but here in this offering we have a litany of skills development, concerns on obesity, future fixing, social engineering, and so on. Some quotes:
By playing, children try out new things, test themselves and learn new skills. Play is also a way of developing social and emotional skills: by playing with others children learn to share, take turns, negotiate and make friends.
Far from being an inconsequential time filler, it is clear that play helps children grow into the rounded, sociable and skilled people we all want them to be.
There is so much to be gained by enabling children to play and be active. It’s time for a joined-up approach to supporting children’s health and wellbeing and a recognition that only by working together will we deliver the changes necessary to protect the health of future generations.
Play teaches children to use language effectively and solve problems . . . Through play and physical activity, children learn how to negotiate, cooperate and see things from other people’s points of view.
Children’s social skills are also honed through play. Equipping children with the skills to negotiate and draw boundaries, e.g. through role play, may help prevent unhelpful peer relationships from forming, such as those in gangs.
Recommendations to help children become more active: Increasing children’s play and physical activity would have a range of physical and emotional benefits . . . Put out of school activity at the heart of the plan to reduce obesity.
Where, in all this, is a recognition of play in non-instrumental terms? Play is a political football, kicked around: goals are scored. The real players, in this analogy, are sat on the bench, watching on.
The instrumentalists are in the ascendancy. Poor play. A selection of other findings follows.
In Why playtime is an essential part of childhood development (Child in the City), Jenny Silverstone writes:
When they play, they learn . . . When they play, a child is working on their neurological development . . .
(Sorry, they’re doing what?)
. . . solo playtime is important to help a child explore their imagination. Playtime with other [children] is equally important too as it helps with socialization [sic] and conflict resolution . . . [sensory play] builds up language skills and it is a way for them to learn how to problem solve.
Professor Karen Hutchison of Rowan University says: ‘Play is actually the work of a child in which they are preparing themselves for adult roles and society at large.’
No. No, it’s really not. Play is the focus of the now.
Perri Klass writes in Taking playtime seriously (New York Times):
Play is a universal, cross-cultural and necessary attribute of childhood, essential for development and essential for learning.
In addition to teaching children content, we should look to strengthen their human skills, [Dr. Hirsh-Pasek] said, helping them learn to think up new ideas and explore them, and to navigate the social worlds of play and, later, of work.
‘Play is not a specific activity, it’s an approach to learning, an engaged, fun, curious way of discovering your world,’ Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said.
Play is an approach to learning, to work, to development, the future of ‘betterness’. What about being?
In Time Health, Siobhan O’Connor writes about The secret power of play:
. . . scientists have learned that free play isn’t just something children like to do — it’s something they need to do. Play keeps [children] physically active, all the more important at a time when some 20% of American children are obese — more than triple the percentage from the more play-friendly 1970s . . . It also exercises their minds and their creativity. More than anything else, play teaches children how to work together and, at the same time, how to be alone. It teaches them how to be human.
Play for play’s sake doesn’t get a look in.
Reporting on National Playday in 2014, Katherine Sellgren writes in Play ‘boosts children’s development and happiness’ (BBC, archived under an education URL):
Play helps boost children’s language development, problem solving, risk management and independent learning skills, a study reaffirms.
The report, for the Children’s Play Policy Forum, found play improved children’s physical and mental health, as well as their emotional well-being.
It also found playtime in the school playground could enhance academic skills and attitudes and behaviour . . .
The study also said play and youth facilities in public spaces had led to reductions in levels of anti-social behaviour and vandalism.
[Playgrounds were] linked to a range of improvements in academic skills, attitudes and behaviour, and to improved social skills, improved social relations between different ethnic groups, and better adjustment to school life.
Yes, yes, but what about how play is?
Very acute and current affairs in the US have been viewed recently through the lens of play. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write in How to play our way to a better democracy (New York Times), and despite quoting the ‘free play’ definition offered by Peter Gray (‘activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself’), that:
Outdoor free play, in mixed-age groups, is the most effective way for children to learn . . . essential life skills, Professor Gray says.
How to future-fix a post-Trumpian society.
Returning to the recent publication by the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, Michael Savage writes in The Observer under the title of Call for action to end children’s ‘battery-hen existence’ in summer holidays, that
[Re: the idea of ‘play on prescription’] Research has also indicated that half of British seven-year-olds do not meet the chief medical officer’s minimum physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes activity every day.
‘If children are there [at adventure playgrounds], they will be less anxious, out and about and improving.’ (Anne Longfield)
Improving, no less. Play for attainment of CMO activity guidelines. Savage goes on to write that:
Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chair of the health select committee, backed the calls. ‘Physical activity and play are enormously important to children’s physical and mental health,’ she said. ‘Providing these facilities may save money down the line. It is fantastic value in avoiding the costs later on of poor mental and physical health.’
Is it all about the money? What about poor play? Would any Tory know what ‘play for play’s sake’ means?
The final word here goes to the Lego Corporation. Perhaps whilst trying to entice a few readers into engaging with a few more products in the pipeline, under the title of Families that [sic] play more are happier, but even children say they are too busy for fun and games, the Lego reporter writes that:
The power of play to help children learn is indisputable for parents. Almost all (95%) believe play is essential for children’s wellbeing and a vital educational tool. Four in five (82%) think that children who play more will be more successful in future studies and work.
At the bottom of the page it’s stated that:
The Lego Group’s mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow through the power of play.
What though about the play of today?
Chakrabortty, A. (2018), Which is the only country to protect in law the child’s right to play? The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/22/child-right-to-play-wales-law-budget-cuts (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Children’s Commissioner for England (2018), Playing out: a Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity [online]. Available from: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Play-final-report.pdf (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Haidt, J. and Lukianoff, G. (2018), How to play our way to a better democracy. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/opinion/sunday/democracy-play-mccain.html (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Klass, P. (2018), Taking playtime seriously. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/well/family/taking-playtime-seriously.html (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
O’Connor, S. (2017), The secret power of play. Time Health [online]. Available from: http://time.com/4928925/secret-power-play/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
PPSG (2005), The playwork principles. Cardiff: Playwork Principles Steering Group.
Savage, M. (2018), Call for action to end children’s ‘battery-hen existence’ in summer holidays. The Observer [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/25/end-battery-hen-existence-in-summer-holidays-childrens-commissioner (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Sellgren, K. (2014), Play ‘boosts children’s development and happiness’. BBC [online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28658441 (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Silverstone, J. (2018), Why playtime is an essential part of childhood development. Child in the City [online]. Available from: https://www.childinthecity.org/2018/08/29/why-playtime-is-an-essential-part-of-childhood-development/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Trangbæk, R. R. (2018), Families that play more are happier, but even children say they are too busy for fun and games. Lego Group [online]. Available from: https://www.lego.com/en-gb/aboutus/news-room/2018/august/play-well-report/ (Accessed Sep 6, 2018).
Sometimes reporters of articles get to speak to playworkers, advocates for play for play’s sake who do their level best to explain their experience and understanding of play, to inform those articles; sometimes, it’s acknowledged here, those reporters misrepresent or mangle those playworkers’ words.