Why is play so misunderstood and underrated in our society? The truth is that play is more complex and more powerful than we give it credit for.
It is an instinctual innate behaviour; to play is an inbuilt need which is part of our DNA. It is the most vital component for development and the way through which all animals express their joy in life, explore, learn, and discover the world.
“Play” as Cornell points out must be vital to our survival “otherwise, why would mammals and birds expand precious energy playing?” (Cornell, 2017, p16). So, play really is an important part of being human, it is also an important part of being “a bear, an otter, or a dolphin, or a raven” (Brown, 2003). It is through play that all animals “become” something as all young animals learn about their species social ground rules, cultural values, roles, skills and responsibilities by playing. Play allows animals to feel, create, imagine, and define who they are.
Einstein famously once said: “Play is the highest form of research” (Goodreads, 2021) and “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (Goodreads, 2021). He said this because he realised how limited knowledge is, in that it only captures what we know and understand now. However, imagination allows us to explore and toy with concepts and ideas that are not yet concrete. In play we take on roles and try things out “We can play out feelings and make sense of experiences. Through play we become” (Cree and Robb, 2021).
Unfortunately, in today’s world play is so underrated. “They are just playing”, “Stop playing” and my favourite which as an Early Years Educator really makes me cross “That’s not a job, all you do is play all day”. Our world is dominated by adult thinking which craves measurability and unfortunately this “overshadows the truly rich potential of play” (Bottrill, 2018). As adults we seem to think that play cannot meet our demands and it is as though the only way for children to succeed is by putting out their spark and adopting our adult version of what a child should do and be.
Forest School gets the importance of play and sessions are child-centred and carefully designed to use each child’s interests and fascinations to shape and lead the programme.
Like most things in life, nature has the answers and if we only step back and allow her to do her thing, we would be much better off. Play, joy and wellbeing go hand in hand. Psychologists, neurologists, sociologists, know that “play” has many neurological benefits and science supports ideas about how play helps with brain development.
“Play stimulates the brain, enhances cognitive function and adaptability and strengthens social bonds.” (Cornell, 2017)
It is also known that “play” and exploration triggers the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth and maintenance of brain cells. It unsurprisingly lowers blood pressure, improves cardiac health, lowers stress hormone levels, boosts T-cells, and triggers the release of endorphins. There is also a profound connection between our physical senses, memory, and cognition. As Carla Hannaford the author of Smart Moves: Why learning is Not All in Your Head points out:
“Learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body…..Memory is not stored (solely) in the brain (but in) neutral pathways that fire together as patterns throughout the entire body” (Cornell, 2017)
Play is a complex set of behaviours characterised by fun and spontaneity, it can be sensory, neuromuscular, and cognitive. Play involves repetition of experience, exploration, experimentation, and imitation of one’s surroundings. Allowing real play to take place is about accepting the voice of its participants and their needs.
Pinterest is wonderful, I am the first to admit this, but have you ever spent hours creating/making and setting up a play activity that you have seen on Pinterest only to find that your child/class/club or group are just not interested? The reason for this is simple we have forgotten the most important ingredient of play and that is that it needs to come from the child. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to allow play to be “freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated” (L. Florey,1981). Play is what children and young people determine and they must be the ones to control the content and intent of their play.
So, what is our role then as an adult? I hear you ask; this is all well and good but if we just allow children to play and rule the roost then it would be complete chaos - “Lord of Flies” (Golding, 1997) style. I know what you are thinking because I have questioned this too. But the role of the adult or playworker is simple it is not to lead and structure the play but to follow, observe and watch what the intrinsic play motivations are and to provide time and resources so that play can take place. The adults need to have a special sense which allows them to know when to step in, when to step back, when to advise and when to not. To do this the adult, needs to have an in-depth understanding of play which they can tap into and use to maximise play opportunities and give the participants access to a wide variety of play experiences.
I told you play was complicated, it is and maybe the next time you are about to look down on that underpaid early years practitioner, that playworker, that nursery school leader, that childminder maybe you should hold back because these roles, if done properly, are highly skilled and need a huge amount of background knowledge. Here are just a few play theories that they draw on.
In 2002 Bob Hughes published A Playworkers Taxonomy of play types (Hughes, 2002) where he proposes that there are 16 types of play that can be observed when children are at play (Appendix 1). Knowing and understanding how play can manifest itself in a wide variety of activities, behaviours and styles helps adults to plan, design and draw upon a wide range of play experiences. They can ensure that they support each of the different play types and therefore encourage a rounded holistic programme.
In 1932 British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett pioneered the concept of schemas stating that they were:
“Unconscious mental structures that represent and individual’s generic knowledge about the world.” (Education State University, 2021)
Schemas are a pattern of repeated behaviours which allows children and adults to explore the world and express ideas and thoughts. The repetitive action of schematic play allows children to construct meaning in what they are doing. Schemas are often described as children’s fascinations and are necessary in a child’s understanding of the world and themselves. Schemas are developmental phases that children go through as illustrated by Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive development (Appendix 2). Right from birth we learn through schemas, sucking and grasping are one such example and a baby will repeat and use this behaviour again and again until it has mastered and really understands it. As a child gets older the number of schemas they use increases and so does the level of complexity. We continue to go through these phases even into adulthood. As adults we will still use and learn through preferred schemas for example, a child who likes ordering and setting out objects in lines as an adult will still also use this strategy to organise and understand their world. There are many different types of schemas (Appendix 3) schematic behaviour and learning that stems from them. Once we know and understand them as adults, we can support the child/adult and build these into our play planning. Matching the activity to the schema allows us to extend learning and deepen thinking as knowing what influences our child’s attention helps us to know how they best absorb new knowledge.
Forest School uses these as well as many other taxonomies to help understand and build a holistic picture of each participant. We have a six-week baseline assessment period which is the first six weeks of any new group where we really focus on each individual, observe record and delve into their motivations, fascinations and play types and then from this evidence the rest of our curriculum is planned and designed.
“Our role as Forest Schools Practitioners is to understand the child’s interests and passions and plan a curriculum that enhances, entices, motivates and engages each child in their learning. This is called an Emergent Curriculum.” (Blackwell, 2020)
The curriculum is based on the child and not the child based on the curriculum as it is in school which is refreshing, effective, motivating but hard work. I have found this process really liberating as the more I focus in on the play types and the way the children move and use the environment the more I understand them, and the child is becoming the heart of the planning.
Going back to my comments about using Pinterest and the ideas that you might have seen or gathered from other parents the key is not to compare, not to mimic what you have seen. But instead you need to look carefully at what motivates, fascinates, and brings your child joy and start your search for activities from this point.
So, next time you are tempted to say, oh they are just playing, stop! They are not just playing they are:
increasing their self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect
improving and maintain their physical and mental health
mixing with other children and finding their place in the world
increasing their confidence through developing new skills
promoting their imagination, independence and creativity
developing social skills and learning
building resilience through risk taking and challenge, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations
learning about their environment and the wider community.
American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Volume 35 issue 8, 519–524, America.
Blackwell, 2020, Archimedes Forest School, Sheffield, Archimedes Earth Press,
Bottrill G, 2018, Can I go and Play now? Rethinking the Early Years, London, SAGE Publications Ltd,
Brown, 2003, Playwork: Theory and Practice, Open University Press, United Kingdom
Cornell J, 2017, Deep Nature Play, Nevada City, CA, Crystal Clarity Publishers, p16
Cree and Robb, 2021, The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy, London, Routledge.
Education State University, 2021, Learning Theory: Schema Theory, accessed 24/9/21
Florey L, 1981, Studies of Play:Implications for Growth, Development and for Clinical Practice,
Golding, 1997, Lord of the Flies, London, Faber and Faber,
Goodreads, 2021, Einstein quotes, Goodreads Inc, accessed 17/9/21
Hannaford C, 2005, Moves: Why learning is not all in your head, USA, Great Ocean Publishers
Hughes B, 2002, A Playworkers Taxonomy of Play Types, London, Playlink
Play England, 2021, Charter for Play, accessed 22/9/21 https://www.playengland.org.uk/charter-for-play