Let Us Play

‘Play has an essence which is completely independent of the attitude of the player. If this is not realized, then play becomes distorted by being cultivated, as is commonly done in both educational and psychotherapeutic circles… All playing is a being played… [It] does not allow the player to behave towards it like an object… Play does not point to purposes beyond itself, it celebrates itself… Its nature is completely distorted if it is considered psychologistically as a known thing about which assertions can be made and which people then set forth to cultivate.’ (my italics)

John Heaton


Back in 2002 I wrote an article on play for TM (see TM, no. 2 [Summer], 2002, pp. 44-6). Since then, play’s state-of-play (to coin a phrase) in modern technological society has arguably deteriorated significantly – and this is something that should greatly concern all of us, whether we have children or not. For the great paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, amongst many others, the capacity to play is a mark of maturity; and playing is surely as important for adults as it is for children – albeit for different reasons, perhaps. For me, a society and a life without play are at root soulless and Godless – and, as I write, having been working far too hard in recent weeks and not playing nearly enough, I can testify from personal experience the effect that this lack is having on this particular soul!

A particular concern of mine is the way in which the very notion of ‘play’ is increasingly mis-understood in modern schooling and child-development contexts. When I happen to be passing mainstream schools during their so-called ‘play-time’, I am often struck by the incredibly noisy and visibly manic, hyper-active behaviour the children are exhibiting – not what I would call authentic play at all. Now of course this has quite a lot to do with an atomising education system which is chronically over-biased to the intellectual and the academic, with its constrainingly narrow curriculum, and which is not responding appropriately to children’s developmental needs. But I also think it’s related to children’s lack of play: that is, that many or even most children are now so ‘play-deprived’ that when they are offered the tiniest window for free time and space, they desperately try to cram all of their play needs into the shortest of time-scales, with a resulting mayhem which is surely deeply non-nourishing and unsatisfying at many levels. In the early years, too, the crass distortion of play is everywhere to be seen, with ‘structured’ and ‘directed’ play becoming the norm, in which adults decide what they think children need to learn, and then manipulatively intrude into their play to make sure they learn it (and what a role model for young children!…).

Now this is an insidious and highly dangerous process, for the deep and subtle meaning of play, and what it might be-come, are being assaulted by a ‘modernist’ materialistic mentality which threatens to change decisively how we can speak and even think about what play might be. There is an important story to be told here about the degradation of language in a crassly utilitarian, hyper-modernist society. Thus, what we are increasingly witnessing is the way in which certain terms are being used not to denote anything of substance, but rather to create an impression that something is being done, or to put a particular ‘spin’ on matters – with the perhaps unconscious, delusory fantasy that if we can only repeat these increasingly vacuous terms often enough, then something substantive really will magically exist or obtain – though course, it never does. Take, for example, the terms ‘diversity’, ‘quality’ and ‘world class’. These days I find their common cultural use so lacking in clarity and substance that any meaning or usage they may once have had is now thoroughly demeaned. And I see ‘play’ as falling squarely into this category – that is, it is increasingly coming to be defined by precisely what it isn’t and never could be!

As regular readers will know, my friend and colleague Sue Palmer (author of De-Toxing Childhood) and I co-organised the original Open Press Letter on ‘toxic childhood’ and ‘junk culture’ (published in September 2006); and this autumn, we decided to do a one-year anniversary follow-up, which focussed on just why play is so important for children, and why it’s under such threat in the modern world.1 It was because Sue and I were so heartened by how much our original open letter helped to raise awareness about children’s lifestyles, that it seemed worthwhile one year later to repeat the exercise, this time with a focus on children’s play.

In our view, play is compromised in many ways in the modern world – not only for children but for adults, whose work-life balance is often seriously out of kilter. Real play is by definition socially interactive, first-hand, and loosely supervised: it has always been a central part of children’s learning and development, and I believe that its degradation and loss is already having serious effects on children’s healthy development. As Sue has put it, too much ‘junk play’ (like too much junk food) could indeed have alarming implications for the next generation.

As with the first Open Letter on ‘toxic childhood’, we were quite overwhelmed by the extraordinary reponse to this new letter – signed by nearly 300 notables from across the globe, including such giants of the child development field as Michel Odent, Steve Biddulph, Penelope Leach and TM’s own Veronika. Many emails and calls of support have touched us deeply, and it’s clear there’s huge concern all over the world about the quality of children’s play. It’s also a concern that cuts across child-related professions and academic disciplines.

Our letter (the full text of which is appended) highlighted the need for ‘a wide-ranging and informed public dialogue about the intrinsic nature and value of play’. For whilst we all routinely talk about play a great deal of the time, do we really understand its deep nature? Might the mechanistically utilitarian mentality that is so comprehensively colonising so much of modern life unwittingly be making play into ‘a thing’ – to be manipulated by adults, the very act of which necessarily betrays the deep spiritual essence of truly authentic playing? Perhaps we need to start thinking again about the nature of truly authentic, unintruded-upon playing, and how we might begin to think and speak about it, such that we preserve its intrinsic reverence, rather than fatally compromising it through the coarse bludgeon of ‘modernity’. One way of doing this might be to use the more active term ‘play-ing’ rather than the more inert ‘play’, for example. As already suggested, language really does matter – not least because it can control the very way in which we can think about our world and our experience.2
The great seer Rudolf Steiner wrote at length about what he termed the ‘imponderables’ or the ‘intangibles’ of a learning experience – the subtleties and nuances, usually (and perhaps of necessity) unconscious, that are quite possibly the most important aspect of education and learning. However, certainly in the developed Western world, we are being swamped by an ‘audit and surveillance culture’3 which is colonising and dominating the very heart of our children’s educational and child-care environments, with the result that the vital creative space that is so essential for free play to flourish is under increasing siege. Every one of us carries an enormous responsibility to do all we can to protect our children’s playing space, literal and metaphorical, from the low-trust values, attitudes and practices that typify the audit culture.

OPEN LETTER, Daily Telegraph, 10/9/07 2007: Let our children play
Sir – Since last September, when a group of professionals, academics and writers wrote to The Daily Telegraph expressing concern about the marked deterioration in children’s mental health, research evidence supporting this case has continued to mount.
  Compelling examples have included Unicef’s alarming finding that Britain’s children are amongst the unhappiest in the developed world, and the children’s charity NCH’s report of an explosion in children’s clinically diagnosable mental health problems.
  We believe that a key factor in this disturbing trend is the marked decline over the last 15 years in children’s play. Play – particularly outdoor, unstructured, loosely supervised play – appears to be vital to children’s all-round health and well-being.
  It develops their physical coordination and control; provides opportunities for the first-hand experiences that underpin their understanding of and engagement with the world; facilitates social development (making and keeping friends, dealing with problems, working collaboratively); and cultivates creativity, imagination and emotional resilience. This includes the growth of self-reliance, independence and personal strategies for dealing with and integrating challenging or traumatic experiences.
  Many features of modern life seem to have eroded children’s play. They include: increases in traffic that make even residential areas unsafe for children; the ready availability of sedentary, sometimes addictive screen-based entertainment; the aggressive marketing of over-elaborate, commercialised toys (which seem to inhibit rather than stimulate creative play); parental anxiety about “stranger danger”, meaning that children are increasingly kept indoors; a test-driven school and pre-school curriculum in which formal learning has substantially taken the place of free, unstructured play; and a more pervasive cultural anxiety which, when uncontained by the policy-making process, routinely contaminates the space needed for authentic play to flourish.
  A year on, the signatories of the original letter to the Telegraph are joined by other concerned colleagues in calling for a wide-ranging and informed public dialogue about the intrinsic nature and value of play in children’s healthy development, and how we might ensure its place at the heart of twenty-first-century childhood.

1 The Open Letters on ‘toxic culture’ and play are at, respectively:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/09/12/njunk112.xml and
2 See George Orwell’s notion of ‘Newspeak’ in his increasingly prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Steven Poole, Unspeak, Little, Brown, London, 2006
3 See, for example, M. Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford University Press, 1997; M. Strathern (ed.), Audit Cultures, Routledge, London, 2000.

RICHARD HOUSE lectures in psychotherapy and counselling at Roehampton University, London, and is a trained Steiner Kindergarten and Class teacher, working part-time in Norwich Steiner School. He writes regularly for The Mother and edits the acclaimed Hawthorn Press ‘Early Years’ series.


2 Responses to Let Us Play

  1. Sarah Tindal says:

    I am a trainee teacher and would like to use the article ‘let us play’ by Richard House as a reference for my dissertation. Could you tell me a date for when it was written and published please?

  2. […] In 2007, a group of 270 child psychologists from around the English-speaking Western world wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph suggested that the loss of unstructured play time was behind the […]

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