Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to a four part podcast from the BBC World Service’s The Compass, called ‘Why We Play‘. Each part explored a different phase of life, from childhood through to old age, and the impact and potential benefits of play. It covers things like video games, which can help adolescents navigate issues around anxiety and depression; why we shouldn’t stop playing in old age; the importance of play in making sense of the world in the early years; and how play can increase productivity at work. I won’t go into too much detail here but it’s an interesting listen.
As part of a team developing a museum dedicated to young people, where play is one of the key themes, we bang on about play a lot. I even go off to colleges and universities occasionally and talk about how important it is, referencing people like Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori alongside toy designers like Patrick Rylands.
You may not recognise Rylands’ name but for people of my generation his toys will have been part of your childhood. He was the creator of Playplax, which – along with its direct descendant Super Octons – was still a staple part of nursery kit in the late 1990s. He talked about Playplax as something that was ‘just stuff’: there were no pre-determined outcomes, only what the child made of it.
“A toy that does everything by itself, does nothing for the child. The main purpose of a toy is to enable children to enter into a world of make-believe, as it is in this way that children relate to reality.”Patrick Rylands
The power of these little perspex squares is amazing: when we were doing some training with a childcare setting in the summer on how to use the big blue blocks we took the Super Octons along and several of the adults latched onto them and spent ages with them. A teenage girl at Epping Forest College made a set of sunglasses in a session which she was very proud of. People love the simplicity of slotting the shapes together, of mixing the colours and building up and out. The blue blocks (and Lego, and any building kit!) have the same effect – they are an invitation to play, to build and create.
Where was I? Oh yes, banging on about play again. Going out and talking to teenagers can get a bit depressing at times as a) they don’t want to talk back to me, so getting them to answer questions is like squeezing money out of HMRC and b) they often tell me that you stop playing when you stop being a child. The definition we often use, both in the sociology and the play sessions, is that childhood lasts from birth to puberty, although we do discuss legal and social definitions as well. They talk about play – when I can get them to talk at all – as something they ‘used to do when they were young’ (thanks, 15 year olds!) or as something they do with younger siblings or cousins.
There are many definitions of play, especially when you start getting all academic about types of play and things (it’s Sunday, so I won’t) but the very simplest one, the one I use when talking into the teenage void, is that it’s something you choose to do for enjoyment and recreation, rather than for a serious purpose. If you ask them what they do for fun, they tell you that they go and hang out at Westfield (other shopping centres are available, apparently), play online games and so on. Some may play football or skateboard, some might have a hobby that they enjoy, and some – very occasionally – admit to enjoying the odd board game at Christmas or with family. They then often mention Monopoly, which to me is less a game and more a form of hideous torture, but there we are. I’m still not sure they agree that their non-game activities are ‘play’ but at least they are talking to me.
Before I joined the museum, the Importance of Play session finished with a chance for the students to play with various toys that they had seen in the galleries – a teddy bear’s picnic, dolls house, Playmobil sets, building blocks etc – and their task was to set them up as they might if they were inviting nursery children to join in and then we’d discuss what children might learn. This might be fine or gross motor skills, social skills, colour matching or maths. After several months of the teenage void I noticed that as we walked into the classroom the students were more interested in the activities than in the talk, so I flipped the session and invited them to play at the start of the session. It was a revolution, as far as I was concerned, and the sessions became much more open: they’d play, and then we’d ask them the same questions about what young children might learn. But now they’d answer me, and they’d talk about their own activities, and were more confident in sharing their prior knowledge.
The podcast (see, you knew there was a point) made me think about whether I was practising what I preached, to coin a phrase. Am I playful enough in my adult and work life? You all know what I enjoy doing – I make things, I hurl myself in lakes and so on – but do I play?
Sometimes, I admit, I forget: having to be a proper grown up and keep other people alive, negotiating peace settlements among children, being the grumpy one that makes them turn the Minecraft off and so on are not conducive to playfulness. But I sing and dance in the kitchen while I cook those dinners and spin passing children into a twirl, and sometimes have the urge to bake a cake and smother it with Smarties ‘just because’. When London sister and I went to Ireland for our niece’s First Communion there was a bouncy castle and we regressed entirely, spending a lot of the afternoon on it and ganging up to bounce our mum off the apron at the front; playing with the niece and nephew and being entirely silly. When we have our big family holidays the various children often accuse us of being childish, as we tend to get a bit giddy.
Things 2 and 3 do enjoy board games and both of them will help me if I get a jigsaw out at Christmas, and Thing 2 likes to play with beads and make things. Thing 1 enjoys playing with make up and will be doing a course at college next year which will teach her about special effect make up. Popular games here have been Tsuro, Mijnlieff and Horrible Histories’ Stupid Deaths games, as well as traditional fare like Pop-up Pirate, Hungry Hippos and Connect 4. My mum bought us Sorry!, in a vain attempt at revenge for the Christmas when she got so annoyed at being sorried once too often that she threw it across the room and we’ve never let her forget it. It failed – I just saved it till she came to stay and made her play it with them.
Last September I joined a Dungeons and Dragons campaign – I used to play when I was at uni, so when I was invited to join this set of characters that I’d already made voodoo dolls of at the Dungeon Master’s request, I jumped at the chance. So every Thursday night I wander off down the road with my dice and my tablet and for a couple of hours I’m a bardic gnome (or possibly a Gnomic Bard) with a magical dragon plushie I haven’t brought into play yet, a set of spells and a good excuse to make extremely silly puns on a regular basis. And I love it – I’m still finding my feet and sometimes my dice hate me and conspire to kill me, but it’s so much fun. Some weeks are tense and battle filled (I got grappled by a giant monstery thing!) and other weeks are completely daft and giggly (last week we ‘helped’ someone with the world’s most uncomfortable first date) but I love it. Some weeks, if we have people missing, we end up playing board games and that’s great too. One of my lovely colleagues also plays D&D, and we often sit over coffee and talk about our campaigns – neither of our partners play, so we can nerd out in safety!
A secondary school I visited a few months ago, which is for boys with social, emotional and behavioural needs, has a D&D room. These boys can go and work through different scenarios in a safe space, giving them a set of coping skills they can apply in real life. They might not run into owlbears or svartalves in the streets of East London but the skills they learn are very much real.
All our new learning sessions will have elements of play as well as imagination and design, so I’m learning to build it more into my work life. Enforced playfulness in work life can be excruciating, especially when confronted with ‘role play’ activities in training sessions, but being more playful in how I build activities is definitely more fun!
So, I might not be entirely playful – but I’m working on it….
With that, I’m off to do the ironing and then I’m going to play with some yarn. See you next week!
The House at the End of Hope Street/The Dress Shop of Dreams/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag
The Memory Shop – Ella Griffin
The Innocent – Harlan Coben
Doctor Who: Tenth Doctor Novels vol 1 (Audible)