Reclaiming Play!

This first published by Upstart Scotland in April 2024

Play is the work of the child. Maria Montessori

We know that play is important – a biological imperative. It’s how we discover and connect to ourselves, other people and the world we live in. The benefits of play are vast. The SPICE acronym (for social, physical, intellectual, creative/cultural and emotional development) is often used by professionals to illustrate these benefits and you can read more about them in Upstart’s book Play is The Way.

In the modern landscape of Scottish education, play is given high status as a powerful tool for learning and engagement. Organisations such as Play Scotland and the International Play Association promote and advocate for play and learning through play. Education Scotland has produced useful documentation and guidance and both they and the Care inspectorate look for play experiences during inspections.

We have created a whole new language around play and playfulness – free play, adult directed play, learning through play, structured play, child directed play, play-based learning, to name a few. Teachers and practitioners up and down the country are investing heavily in play – resources, time and training.

But what is play?

The UNCRC defines play in the General Comment on Article 31 (2013):

‘Children’s play is any behaviour, activity or process initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves; it takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise. Caregivers may contribute to the creation of environments in which play takes place, but play itself is non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation and undertaken for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end.

The paper goes on to note the importance of play and playful experiences during the school day: ‘play is an important means through which children learn.’

The point is that play is guided and owned by the players, not by others. It cannot be planned in advance to fit with curriculum goals; it cannot be structured, defined by learning objectives or targets, even with the very best of intentions. Yet it is vital for development. It is intrinsically motivating and something the UNCRC tells us should be available in schools.

Planning for play?

We seem to have developed a whole language to justify play in our care and education settings. ‘Purposeful play’ is one of the phrases that really gets me riled – it implies that there is play which is not purposeful. ALL play is purposeful. ALL play comes from our innate drive to explore, to learn. There is no such thing as play without purpose. Also, the term ‘learning through play’ – play is learning! If the learning has been planned for in advance however, then it is simply not play.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for child-initiated activity being extended in some way by an adult offering resources or musing about ‘what might happen if?’. This is undoubtedly a useful teaching tool. As are adult-initiated playful activities –  perhaps the adult reading a story and offering puppets and props in the book corner for retelling – and playful adult-led activities, such as dramatising a well known story together and setting playful challenges.

Play for play’s sake

But if we are to use the UNCRC definition (which really we should, as it is now incorporated into Scots Law), then we also need to value play for play’s sake for the vitally important role it has in human development.

Pic with caption:

Non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation

and undertaken for its own sake,

rather than as a means to an end’.

Our children’s opportunities for play out of school have been diminishing over recent decades. Surely this loss of play – time and space to really play – has, at least in part, contributed to the decline in mental and physical health of our population and in the rise of populism?

So let’s reclaim play. Let’s be proud and brave enough to use the word on its own. Let’s give current, and future generations of wee ones the chance to develop holistically, to build true emotional resilience, to know themselves better, to really prepare them for life. Isn’t that what we want for them? Let’s stop pretending play is only valuable if it has the word learning beside it.

Let’s shout it from the rooftops – PLAY IS THE WAY!

Upstart Scotland Reclaiming Play

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