The lost joys of playing and just being

by Jan 26, 2014Play5 comments

Speaking to several parents in the last week, and children I work with, I was reminded of what a regimented and over-organised world we now live in, one in which there is so little time to  ‘just be’, to allow creative thoughts and imagination to grow and to do what it needs to help children and adults to become generative and develop their own thoughts and ideas.  I suggested to one dad what I suggest rather often, which is that he just take 15 minutes , or even 10, each day to spend in following his child’s play. He looked aghast and panicked, how on earth could he fit that in, what with after school karate, maths, football club, violin and French, chores to do for him, homework to supervise, and so the list went on. I was not surprised at the panic, I felt my own anxiety levels rising as I listened.

Those of us brought up in an era when we were told to go out and play and come back at tea time often find this brave new world rather shocking. Yet it is something that those of us lucky enough to be in work also seem increasingly subject to. Those I know in the public sector feel, as many in the media continually mention, that they are overwhelmed by form filling and bureaucratic procedures which leave little time to be with clients. Social, workers constantly bemoan this, but so do most NHS professionals that I know. Few seem to think that this monitoring aids the quality of what they do. It makes them feel reactive and also untrusted. At best people learn to play a game, and at worst it kills people’s love and passion for  their work.  A nursery teacher  friend tells me that he cannot allow a child to just play, or to make food or to experiment. Every activity has to be linked to a clear learning outcome, colours, or numbers or science, all justified and written down. Children then do not feel that the adults are ever really just with them, in touch with their thoughts and feelings, nor do they feel that they can be trusted to explore.

Yet so much research suggests that creativity and psychological growth happens from quite other means. It is no coincidence that a recent study by larissa samuelson and colleagues  [1] found that babies who are allowed to be messy with their food and explore the sensory nature and texture, in fact learnt much better than those who were not allowed to play with their food .

All kinds  of other factors are working against just playing. As Neuroscientist Jak Pannskepp  [2]has shown what many of us know intuitively, that play is vital for all kinds of developments, including of frontal lobe brain regions involved in self-regulation. He suggests that reinstating play as a central component of what children do, especially preschool children, rather than subjecting them prematurely to academic curricula, would lead to better frontal lobe development, less impulsivity and more prosocial behaviours.

Yet being able to play, whether rough and tumble games or symbolic imaginative ones, depends on feeling reasonably safe, at ease and unhurried. Children are increasingly deprived of the emotional states needed to be able to play properly due to busy parenting, the temptation of screens and the pressure of academic and other timetabled activities. It is no coincidence that stressed or traumatised young primates, or rats, as well as humans, often cannot play Many of the children I have worked with, especially those who come from compromised emotional backgrounds, are too tense, angry or anxious to be imaginative or use symbolism.

Interestingly Panksepp discovered  [3] that in rats bred for generations to be very hyperactive, those given play opportunities showed decreased hyperactivity and better self-regulation. He argues that the same applies to children. Of course  most therapeutic work with children is undertaken through the medium of play, and the first stage in most evidence-based parenting programs is to teach parents to follow a child’s lead and to play alongside them (e.g. Webster-Stratton et al., 2004). Those delightful make-believe games we sometimes see young children indulge in depend on sophisticated understanding of other minds. To really play in an imaginary creative way a child needs to be able to put themselves in the shoes of both their play partner and the make-believe character being enacted, and negotiate the to-and-fro of complex imaginative interactions. This requires a sense of pleasure and mutual fun. Children from traumatised or stressed backgrounds often cannot do this. Even children who have been sensitively attuned to can nowadays lead such timetabled lives that there is little time to just play.

This is something that the great paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about many decades ago [5]. I see time and time again in my work that children who seem to have no capacity for imagination or playfulness, who are full of fear, rage or stress, slowly come to relax and feel calmer, develop more belief that the world is a safe place. Suddenly seemingly out of nowhere, almost miraculously, creative and imaginative play seems to develop, and at this point a whole host of psychological developments occur. This often includes their educational performance improving dramatically, friendships improving, higher IQ scores and better friendhsips.

There are some exciting trends in education just now, which are asserting the importance of self-led learning, trusting the learner, using imagination and allowing people to follow their own interests. These include the extraordinary explosion of free university courses available on sites such as Coursera , or the kind of independent learning encouraged by the phenomenon that is the Khan Academy. Many people are following this trend with exciting results (eg here). There are many amazing stories of similar developments, in the third world.  One of the great tales is this one, of children in poverty being saved from the numbing boredom of enforced rote learning and being freed up to follow their own hearts and interests. Read this article for inspiration How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.

Much of this is not really new. Many heroes of mine from the 1970’s, such as John Holt,  Ivan illich, Paulo Freire and others knew the truth of this and delivered extraordinarily exciting results. Hopefully we can somehow regain the idea that play is a good in itself and not a means to an end. Children who are lost in play often evoke a sense of awe in adults, play just has intrinsic value; we do not do it to achieve anything else, although there are often rewarding by-products. We can get lost in play, be taken over by it, and it is no coincidence that the psychoanalyst Winnicott  [5] contrasted play with reality, and argued that the capacity to play, to symbolize, and creativity in general are fundamentally linked.  Harsh realities can sometimes come crashing in to destroy fragile moments of play. Think of the little girl who puts on her mother’s shoes and hat to and is pretending to be a teacher until her mother comes in and harshly asks what she thinks she is doing.  The teacher who has to disrupt children’s game to ask what that colour is or how many beads there are will just kill the play stone dead. Play produces benefits in its own right for the player, spurring other developments, yet it is generally undertaken simply for the joy of it.

Symbolism and play are some of the most treasured human gifts, some say what marks out humans as distinctively human. We might note the wonder many have when seeing ancient cave paintings, for example. Yet play also ultimately is not play if it is not fun, and what seems to be universal is not only that children indulge in play, including pretend play, but that it is mainly undertaken with feelings of  pleasure and wonder. Maybe playing touches us so deeply because it is something that many in busy post-industrial society have so little time for, that ability to be in the moment and engrossed in an activity and in one’s own being.

[1]        L. K. Perry, L. K. Samuelson, and J. B. Burdinie, ‘Highchair philosophers: the impact of seating context-dependent exploration on children’s naming biases’, Developmental Science, p. n/a–n/a, 2013.

[2]        J. Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford: OUP, 2004.

[3]        J. Panksepp, ‘Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain?’, J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 57–66, 2007.

[4]        C. Webster-Stratton, M. J. Reid, and M. Hammond, ‘Treating children with early-onset conduct problems: Intervention outcomes for parent, child, and teacher training’, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 105–124, 2004.

[5]        D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality New York. New York: Basic Books, 1971.


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