Some time ago when involved in the production of a publication aimed at identifying quality in playwork  I found myself revisiting decisions my partner and I had made in respect of our own children’s play. It was the 70s and we had very clear ideas about gender stereotyping and war games.
- "We can try and censor our children’s play but we will lose"- Mike Greenway
As we became better informed we realised that we had done our children a serious disservice. Our own childhood had been one that was defined by freedom. Away from the gaze of adults, we played with concepts, ideas, values and explored social norms. This freedom from adult’s constraints gave us the space to explore how relationships worked. For example, how ill considered words may be regarded as a challenge, leading to an unanticipated confrontation that necessitated fast footwork to escape retribution. This was completely different to the rough and tumble play where we were physically boisterous but with no intention of hurting one another.
Today, many children still have those same opportunities. However, children have increasingly had the freedom to play away from the critical gaze of adults removed. This can be particularly noticeable on the school playground when children are seen arguing. As soon as confrontation is seen, an adult will parachute in with a well-intentioned action to defuse the situation and resolve what they perceive as a problem. Sadly, many children are being deprived of the opportunity to learn how to resolve their own problems; to learn negotiation skills and when it is better to run than argue.
This is just one example of how we are inadvertently censoring our children’s play. There are many examples of different cultures and societies attempting to censor children’s play. Increasingly there is a well-intentioned expectation that play should be informing children’s academic learning, as it often does. But when they are playing, children are learning about what makes them part of our society; this is real learning by doing and it can involve challenging social norms. That is what children do and crucially it does not involve adults.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 17  tells us that play can be defined as
‘any behaviour, activity or process initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves; it takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise’
play is ... driven by intrinsic motivation and undertaken for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. Play involves the exercise of autonomy ...’
For some of us this word ‘autonomy’ can be really challenging. It is not unreasonable for society to want children to grow up as active members working towards a common good, observing social norms; being a good person.
As an adult, I have watched many children, including my own, exert their autonomy, by using twigs to make guns and other toys into dolls; my oldest daughter’s favourite doll was ‘xylophone’ which she slept with and fed every meal-time. We can try and censor our children’s play but we will lose. When children play, they make choices, they learn consequences and learn how to adapt to new situations; the very basis of survival.
So, my partner and I, having realised that we were wrong; that we should have provided our children with the widest range of toys possible, made a belated decision. One Christmas in their late adolescence, they all received fashion dolls and toy guns. Two hours later my 18-year-old shot me in the eye… and it hurt, it really hurt. His response, not entirely contrite, was to say it wouldn’t have hurt so much if he had been given the gun when he was three! How could I argue?
Mike Greenaway has been the Director of Play Wales since its inception in 1998. He acted as an advisor to the Welsh Government in the adoption of the world’s first national play policy, in planning its implementation strategy and the development of ground breaking legislation. He is a member of the International Play Association World Board, the UK Play Safety Forum and the Children’s Play Policy Forum. He has been a teacher, a community farmer, a play worker on adventure playgrounds, a youth officer, an education advisor, and continues to practice playwork in his home village every summer where he is the Chair of the village play association.
 Hughes, B. (2001) ’The First Claim ... a framework for playwork quality assessment’ Cardiff: Play Wales
 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) ’General comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31)’ Geneva: Committee on the Rights of the Child