About play: thinking differently

As well as the valuable traditional accounts, there are also other ways of valuing play. As adults, we feel the need to impose a rational purpose onto something that appears to be purposeless, to bring a seriousness to play’s nonsense and frivolity. Yet if adults only see playing as a way of gaining specific skills, they are tempted to direct children’s play towards those skills ironically risking turning it into something other than play. There is significant evidence from the literature that says that play’s benefits accrue from its characteristics of self-organisation, emergence, unpredictability, flexibility and goallessness.[1]

Children themselves may well see play time (recess) as a break from learning, where they can momentarily escape adult organisation of their time and space and co-create other worlds where the rational laws of the ‘real’ world need no longer apply but are not far away either. In their play, children take aspects of their everyday lives and turn them upside down in ways that make life either less scary or less boring.[2] The laws of physics tell us we cannot fly, but if you put your coat over your shoulder like a cape and do it up at the top, wave your arms and run and make the appropriate noises, then of course you can fly (and perhaps also save the world). These are moments where children feel the vitality of life. The pleasure of playing is more than a mere luxury. Together with other affective aspects of playing, it helps contribute to the development of resilient capacities such as emotion regulation, stress response systems, attachment and an openness to learning.[3] Children who can find time and space for self-organised play are more likely to be happy, settled and engaged in other aspects of school life. Yet for some children, play time is a time of stress, of conflicts and bullying, so a play-friendly school needs to do more than merely provide time for play during the school day.[4]


[1] See, for example, Lester and Russell (2008) Play for a Change: Play, Policy and Practice – A review of contemporary perspectives, London: National Children’s Bureau, available at http://www.playengland.org.uk/resource/play-for-a-change-play-policy-and-practice-a-review-of-contemporary-perspectives.

[2] Sutton-Smith, B. (1997) The Ambiguity of Play, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

[3] Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008) as above

[4][4] Massey, W.V., Stellino, M.B., Mullen, S.P., Claassen, J. and Wilkison, M. (2018) ‘Development of the Great Recess Framework – Observational Tool to measure contextual and behavioral components of elementary school recess’, BMC Public Health, 18: 394.