In praise of play
A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection examines the importance of play to children... and adults
16 January, 2020 — By Jane Clinton
Kristina, an hour after the shelling in Luhansk, Eastern Ukraine, 2017. Photo: courtesy of the artist
WHEN was the last time you played? I’m not talking about a computer or phone game. But playing like you did when you were a child? Climbing, running, letting rip?
It probably sounds anathema to most adults but reconnecting with child-like (and that does not necessarily mean childish) play can be a hugely enriching experience.
As George Bernard Shaw, who died in 1950, observed: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
His conclusion predates current ideas on play by some margin.
Today there are more and more discussions on the value of play for adults as well as children across disciplines from science, art and psychology.
Little wonder then that the Wellcome Collection has cast its expert eye on the very serious business of play.
Serious, because without play we would struggle to learn how to function in the world.
Boy leap-frogging gravestone by Bert Hardy, 1948. Photo: Bert Hardy/Getty Images
There is an impressive overview of the early ideas on play and education and well being.
We see the Kindergarten movement founded by Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the name in 1840. He believed that humans were essentially creative beings. He devised a series of objects he called the Gifts and a set of guided activities which were known as the Occupations to aid play at different stages of children’s lives. They have had a lasting impact on 20th-century art education and creative practice.
Other pioneers in the 20th century, which has been called “the century of the child” are the sisters Rachel and Margaret McMillan. In 1917 they set up the first nursery school for London’s poor. They were determined to create an environment that would encourage the “play instinct”. Theirs was a radical philosophy of the children doing more or less everything outdoors (including taking naps on camp beds), unless the weather was too cold.
A rather lovely film captures these young children playing and utterly comfortable with their outdoors existence.
As well as film there is audio, this time of children singing. Their songs were captured by the folklorists Iona and Peter Opie who documented more than 20,000 children at play in Britain over the course of 30 years. There is a delightful photograph of them skipping with some of those children, which perfectly reflects their approach: they spoke directly to the children, unlike other studies.
Girls upside down by Shirley Baker. Photo: Nan Levy for the estate of Shirley Baker
Play and the emotional need to play was a key feature of 20th-century child psychiatry and psychology.
The aspect of play as therapy is also explored.
Following the Second World War many children were left orphaned, displaced or traumatised. Margaret Lowenfeld was a British paediatrician who was a pioneer in the use of play therapy.
Equally DW Winnicott, a child psychiatrist and paediatrician, also harnessed play and used various games to enable communication between child and therapist.
The notion of play as integral and important to a child’s life was formally recognised when, in 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child declared play as a basic human need.
Yet one of the most poignant aspects of this exhibition is how play and the ability to play has been curtailed by our risk-averse society. The findings are shocking.
Freedom for children to roam has shrunk by almost 90 per cent in the past 30 years.
Set against this we see the carefree abandon of children leapfrogging, hanging upside down in post-war Britain in photographs by the likes of photographers Nigel Henderson, Bert Hardy and Shirley Baker.
Pumpie the elephant. Photo: V&A museum of childhood/Cattley family
Then there is the rather formidable Marjory Allen (Lady Allen of Hurtwood) who was inspired by her trip to Denmark and their skrammellegeplads (junk playgrounds) and brought the adventure playground to Britain in 1946.
Her view was clear. “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit,” she once said.
Contrast this with the later half of the exhibition and we see young gamers discussing what it brings to them – often a camaraderie with fellow gamers and a sense of community. Who’s to say that is not just as valid? As physical play has diminished digital play has increased.
These gamers, as part of the RawMinds project, devised games for the exhibition. This works neatly as at the beginning of the exhibition we hear from children from Argyle Primary School in Camden discussing their ideas on play.
When they are asked whether adults get to play their responses are telling. “No, because they are responsible,” says one. “They’ve got jobs, they’re too busy, they haven’t got time.”
If there is one message to be had from this brilliant exhibition it is that we all need to make just a little bit of time to play and play well.
• Play Well is at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE, until March 8. For details of events visit wellcomecollection.org