This edition of the Importance of Play blog series features an excerpt from ’Policy for Play’ by Adrian Voce, expert on children’s play.
While the precise nature of play remains elusive and indefinable, several academic disciplines – from evolutionary biology to developmental and depth psychology and the emergent neurosciences – each agree in their different ways that children’s play is central to who and what we are. It seems clear from these various studies that playing has a vitally important role, both in individual development and in human evolution, but that its primary purpose is simply to be enjoyed. The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith famously said, ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’; the act of playing brings about ‘renewed belief in the worthwhileness of merely living’.
- "Playing is children’s default setting. After being fed, clothed, rested and feeling reasonably secure, their first need is to play."
Playing is children’s default setting. After being fed, clothed, rested and feeling reasonably secure, their first need is to play. It is a deep and instinctive biological trait: the way that the young orientate themselves and discover how to engage with, navigate and co-create the world of which they are a part. For children, playing is the main medium for self-exploration and self-expression. They first form their self-identity by instinctively rehearsing and developing their emotional and physical repertoires through play. It is how they first encounter and learn to manage risks.
First and foremost, for children, play is fun. This compels them to seek opportunities for it in all circumstances and contexts. It is an evolutionary imperative, which means that playing children are acquiring the self-confidence and developing the mental and emotional capacity and adaptability to not only deal with what life might have in store for them, but also to live it fully, moment to playful moment. Children’s capacity to create such moments is perhaps the only definition of their resilience that we need.
"...but the vital role of play in child development is often widely misunderstood by policymakers, who can frequently be heard to say that there is no difference between play and learning. This dangerously misses the central point about playing, which is that children do it simply because they need to, because it is in their nature."
That children seek opportunities to play wherever and whenever they can should tell us something; but the vital role of play in child development is often widely misunderstood by policymakers, who can frequently be heard to say – as they contrive to manipulate and direct the play of children towards the acquisition of narrowly defined knowledge and skills – that there is no difference between play and learning. This dangerously misses the central point about playing, which is that children do it simply because they need to, because it is in their nature. Learning is incidental, unless it is to become better at the game.
To play the way that their biological instincts demand, children need space: cultural, social and emotional as well as physical and geographical space. That is, they need spacious environments that afford play opportunities, and they need permission and confidence to use them without the encroachment of adult agendas. Because the need for play is universal, it follows that these environments must be part of the public realm, accessible and available to all children.
But play’s self-directed nature and practically infinite variability calls for a different type of public realm from that which has increasingly become the norm. Children need a degree of freedom that is now only rarely granted to them. Space to play is increasingly controlled, dominated or narrowly prescribed to children by adult society. By a range of measures, the space and opportunity for children to play is diminishing. Most pre-teen children in modern Britain no longer play out in their local neighbourhoods. Their independent mobility or ‘licence’ to come and go unaccompanied was drastically curtailed during the latter quarter of the twentieth century and does not appear to be recovering. It is widely considered dangerous, socially unacceptable or both for children to be outside without adults. Mostly, during out-of-school hours, they are either inside – doing their homework, watching TV, playing computer games, ‘chatting’ (i.e. texting) on social media, out somewhere with adults or in an after-school club. If they are lucky, they might be at the park or local playground, but even here, during the primary years, they are by and large closely supervised.
Throughout human history, until very recently, children have tended to play – and had the freedom to play – in the streets where they lived, or the equivalent common spaces between and around their dwellings. But this is 2016, and without projects like Playing Out, organised and promoted by local parents who know what is being lost, ‘free-range kids’ are disappearing from public space – have indeed disappeared altogether from many places, certainly in their primary years. This is the age of the ‘battery-reared child’ in which the play of children – which has been a fundamental, instinctive part of the human story, integral to our evolution – is being confined and constrained like never before. Children’s freedom to play outside is being trumped by the real risk of death or injury from traffic , the perceived threat from predatory strangers  or a range of demands on children’s time, from homework to extra-curricular classes and clubs.
This change – which many experts, including the government’s own, believe has profound implications for children’s health and development as well as the nature of society itself – is neither inevitable nor irreversible but rather a result of decisions about how we conceive, design, develop and manage public space and public services and how they each respond – or do not respond – to children, and what science tells as about their nature and the nature of their need to play.
- Adrian Voce, OBE
Adrian Voce OBE is a writer and consultant on children’s play. He is a former chair and director of the Children’s Play Council and was the founding director of Play England, in which role he was the leading external advisor on the government’s national play strategy for England.
Adrian blogs regularly at www.policyforplay.com