It’s not just play…but it kinda should be!

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I’ve had lots of conversations recently about what people mean when they use the word ‘play’ and how it can be translated to different definitions depending on who you are talking to and what their intention is.

One of the biggest problems I see with play is when people say, “You work in early childhood? Well you can’t do any work, you must just play all day” and the opposite when people are trying to defend play by saying, “It’s not just play! The children learn through play!”

I used to take great pride in answering the first query with, “Why yes, I do play all day. I also observe, assess, facilitate, engage in conversation, question, share thinking, ponder, entice, provoke, negotiate, construct, co-regulate, safeguard…would you like to come to our classroom and play one day?”

As for the second response, yes, play isn’t ‘just’ play. A lot of things are happening behind the scenes of play – learning, practicing, trial and error, rehearsing, understanding, experimenting, teamwork, creativity, collaboration…all those synapses in the brain are firing and becoming stronger in every moment.

So, what do I mean by “It’s not just play, but it kinda should be”? I see so many people trying to defend play by explaining all of the things above, which is great – don’t get me wrong! All those things ARE happening when children play. But I wonder if we need to start changing the way we talk about play as ‘letting’ and ‘allowing’ it to happen, that there IS more to play than the justification of education. It gives the impression that we are already on the defensive and that there is an unwritten rule that children ‘shouldn’t’ play and that play is some sort of privelege granted to the few. Play is a right. If we flip it from “let them play” to “let them do worksheets” it just sounds so ridiculous!

I feel we need to a real effort to remember that play is so much MORE than learning. Play is FUN! It is wonder, joy, love, laughter, magic, sparkly, light-hearted, sprightly and lively! Those things are not measured in a standard curriculum but they are so important.

How can we appreciate these aspects of play when we are so stressed out trying to ‘prove’ that children are learning, making progress and that we as the adult are not just sat back doing nothing? My new motto is taken straight from the Lizzo song, “Juice” where she sings:

????If I’m shining everybody gonna shine ????

When you are shining the world looks brighter and your shine gets reflected back onto you by the actions you take that have an affect on people you are around. If you are shining, others will shine too! If you are playful, happy, Joyful and able to relax into children’s play – either with them or as an observer – without constantly feeling the need to analyse what is happening and why…then your classroom will naturally become more shiny!

To help with this, I suggest you seek out play for yourself. Look for the wonder and joy as an adult and you will begin to appreciate the world around you even more. In turn, your sense of wonder will rub off on everyone around you – colleagues, children and their families, partners and your own family. Feed your soul through play. Give yourself what you need to be more playful so you can value what the children in your setting are experiencing when they are playing.

Don’t worry about what anyone else might think (especially those poopy faces and lemon suckers!). You can be free of judgment when you play because you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s agenda. Find the time in your busy schedule for play, but also bring play into your every day routines. Do a little dance when you turn on a light. Put a cute clip in your hair that makes you smile. Wear odd shoes. Call a friend and do something random.

This photo is from a digital art museum in Japan called teamLab Borderless. It is an amazing interactive experience that I was very lucky to BE in when I went to Tokyo recently on holiday. If you look carefully you can see my shadow. It certainly fed my mind, body, heart and soul as a playful experience. I think it also hit a lot of Peter Gray’s characteristics of play:

  • Play is self-chosen and self-directed
  • Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends
  • Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players
  • Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life
  • Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

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Emma is The Play Coach who loves everything and anything to do with play. Play is children's work and she thinks it should be adult's work too. Connect with Emma for consultations and trainings that promote wonder, joy and well-being through the power of play.

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