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Are we simply playing...?

16 July 2016 22:17


'All God's people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing humming gnats and invisible small mischievous microbes - all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.'

John Muir - The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

What is play? How can we describe play? To me, the very essence of the word 'play' embodies the pure indulgence of a spontaneous action that stumilates the soul. All children, and indeed, all adults have a right and a need to play. Play is innate and from birth is fundamental to human development and well-being and is a necessity to all. From picking up a stick in the woods, to jumping in the puddles, from a round of golf, to an impromptu trip to the beach, play should be freely chosen by the individual, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. Like a stage show, children should be the Directors of their own play; with an authentic backdrop, it is their theatre and they should choose the actors and the script to enable their play to run smoothly... but this should not only be on their opening night, but on every performance.

As a Forest School Practitioner it is our role to facilitate the play that the child leads and enable them, from a distance, to play to their potential. This may be as basic as providing space for them to play safely, giving them some simple resources, such as string and water, and allowing them to have 'wild' play, where their imaginations can literally roam free...

At the Forest School Conference in Shrewbury in 2015, Bob Hughes (Play theorist and advocate) spoke about the desperate need for children to have 'wild' play - free from adult supervision, that is directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake. He described how natural play has been in decline since the 1960s with the increase in traffic and the lack of green space, matched with the concern of parents allowing their offspring to go outside and a risk averse society.

Play deprivation can have serious affects to human development and can manifest in many areas. The biggest challenge we have is that children and their parents, have a fear of risk, and we are bringing up a future generation that are scared to go outside and get their hands dirty. Some children I have worked with literally cannot cope if they become grubby with the slightest bit of mud on them. I appreciate rolling around in the mud is not for all, but a little bit of dirt is actually good for us. 

Research has shown that today children have become vulnerable to stress, anxiety, depression and helplessness and that their ability to problem solve and cope with strategies is dwindling, making resilience harder. Alongside this, insufficient social skills, clumsiness and poor co-ordination, have been prooven to be on the increase, due to the technological age, where children are permanently plugged in to electronic pathways...

Sue Palmer, former head teacher and author on the effects of contemporary childhood, along with a number of researchers from other fields of industry, have gathered research into what they term as ‘Toxic Childhood Syndrome,’ (Palmer, 2007). The evidence from psychologists, neuroscientists and marketing agencies revealed that the contemporary elements that are put into children on a daily basis build up to produce a lethal cocktail, impinging on their later development. A mixture of highly processed food, lack of exercise, unusual sleeping regimes, and modern play, where we are continually plugged in, can result in a generation of unhealthy, unfulfilled youngsters.

A holistic approach to the learning and development of an individual encompasses the emotional, intellectual, physical, relational, and spiritual aspects of a child’s life. If we analyse these components of development through the perspective of play we can compare and evaluate the benefits of contemporary play compared with that of basic play in Forest School. As Sarah Blackwell, Chairman of Forest School Education states, to play freely in the great outdoors is the most naturally supportive form of play that is accessible to all, with a little thought. Nature acts as a therapeutic way for children to engage with their environment and encompasses all of an individual’s developmental processes. Mary Jane Kehily, Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at The Open University, describes the notion of play as a social practice in which young people engage, that is defined through imagination, benign exploratory actions that are conducted in a safe environment in which individuals learn to deal with their emotions. By encouraging self-expression through ‘free play’ (Palmer, 2010) children begin to define their characters and personalities.

 The Taxonomy of Play Types

 Symbolic play - gradual exploration & increased understanding - sticks & string

Rough & Tumble play - physical flexibility & close encounter - leaf angels

Socio-dramatic play - real-life experiences - mud kitchen

Social play - interaction explored - team play & families

Creative play - transformative information - clay, tools & craft

Communication play - play-acting & mime - fire circle games, riddles & songs

Dramatic play - dramatization of events - Harry Potter & Star Wars

Deep play - developing survival skills - scallop-shell fires; bug hunting

Exploratory play - manipulative behaviours - natural chalk making

Fantasy play - child's play - fairies & elves

Imaginative play - no rules apply - anything goes

Locomotor play - all movement - tree climbing

Mastery play - control of the environment - shelter building

Object play - hand-eye manipulations - survival bracelets & knots

Role play - exploring ways of being - painting the trees

Recapulative play - ancestral enactment - bows & arrows & swords

The definition of play as described in the Oxford Dictionary is, ‘… to occupy or amuse oneself pleasantly with some recreation, game, exercise… to act light-heartedly or flippantly… to take part in and … be able to perform… a freedom of movement’ (2003, pg. 627).

This definition of play strikes a chord with what any child under the age of ten should naturally be doing on a daily basis in order to experience their childhood, but in the 21st century is that what our youngsters are actually familiar with? In adulthood if we play then it is considered childish, in childhood is it not a given that that is what children do – play? However, in reality is this what young people really experience?