Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What is play?

Play is a concept that’s difficult to define, because it will look a little different each time a child engages in it. A useful way to understand play is as ‘child-led’ behaviour. The key elements commonly used to
describe play are that it must be:
  • freely chosen,
  • personally directed, and
  • intrinsically motivated. 

Freely chosen

Freely chosen play refers to the time, place, and level of participation in play, more than the content of the play. In schools, there are limitations to freely chosen play as the time to play is set by the school. However, within the play time provided it’s up to the child whether they choose to engage in something we would call play or not. Once we compel a child to take part in an activity, game etc. it ceases to be play and becomes something else. As play specialists, we don’t attach any value judgements to this shift. However, if our goal is to enable play, we try to be aware that the more we stray from allowing the freedom to choose, the less likely it is that the activity we have provided is play.

Personally directed

Personally directed play refers more to the content than the opportunity for play. Play is not an activity; it is a process by which the child discovers the complexity of their relationship with the material, internal, social and cultural spheres of their lives. This process of discovery – reaction and adjustment – is completely personal and therefore must be directed by the person for whom it is relevant. This is where the idea of agency is important. 

The value of play is not ‘what is achieved’, created, or accomplished, but the relationship between what happened and the child's part in it. How did the world react to the child being an agent of their own experience? How did the child react to the world’s reaction to their agency? What adjustment took place in the child's body, mind, cognitive development as a result of their self-created experience? How does the child develop their next move as a result of what they experienced?

Play is the creation of personal primary experience and as play unfolds it can only be play if it unfolds in a totally unique way for each child, and responds to the totally unique directions in which the child wishes to explore.

The role of the adult in play is not to direct play but enrich, prepare, resource, facilitate, sometimes guide, illustrate, sometimes negotiate and above all observe and intervene when most appropriate, especially when keeping play within socially acceptable norms and 'safe enough' boundaries.

Intrinsically motivated

If the first aspect of play is about opportunity and the second about content, this third aspect of play is about reason. What is the reason for play?

The answer is: play itself! Children have an immense innate biological drive and capacity for play. Evolution does not waste time or energy, and our progress as a species has been down to our ability to imagine the impossible, explore every avenue, questions every possibility and create the uncreated. Children are intrinsically motivated to do this. If we as adults try to introduce other motivations, winning, making 'the best thing,' making children thinner, healthier or better behaved, we misunderstand the core nature of play as something that comes at its heart from the child. We do not need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it or what they are gaining from it. It is really none of our business and far too complex for us to understand.

That’s the goal to aim for: Excellent opportunities for children to engage in play. Fortunately, all the other benefits do come: health and physical development, social and emotional development, among a plethora of others; however, we let these benefits just occur, rather than pushing for them as the focus, and the focus of my work as a play advocate is to ensure the best play possible is provided for, because this is what children NEED.

Our guest blogger is Michael Follett, Director of the Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program. Michael is coming to Perth in September to complete our training in the OPAL program, so we can comprehensively support schools in their play provision. You can find out more about OPAL at

We will be hosting a free talk by Michael for all interested principals, teachers and parents who may like to learn more about the OPAL program. This free talk will be held on Wednesday 10th September, from 4.30-6pm at a venue to be announced  Refreshments will be provided. Please register your interest for catering purposes at

Sunday, 3 August 2014

A better place for kids to play

An OT Perspective on the Play Environment

Why play is important

For an occupational therapist, the two main occupations of children are play and learning (these aren’t mutually exclusive). Play is important for children to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral capacities. 

Play is how children create and preserve friendships. It helps foster important life skills and a state of mind that is ready for learning, high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all kinds of creative endeavours.

There are three key areas that occupational therapists look at when working with people: occupation, person, and environment. In this case, the occupation is play. The person is the individual child. And the environment? Well it’s a little more involved than you may think…

The play environment

There are no less than four components of any given play environment. Let’s take as an example an early childhood setting, such as a childcare centre.

1. The physical environment

The physical environment includes the playspace, the climate, any shade or shelter, the equipment supplied, and the buildings, structures (e.g. slides, flat or undulating surfaces) or boundaries around the play area.

2. The institutional environment

There are non-physical factors associated with the childcare centre, including the policies of the centre, times allocated to playing outside and/or inside, and rules about where to play (or not play). It also includes factors such as how groups of children may be divided (e.g. by age).

3. The social environment

This includes the staff’s attitude to play (e.g. whether they value play or not). These attitudes are reflected in choices made by staff, such as when and where to play (when these choices are not directed by policy) – for example, are playtime choices governed by what is ‘easiest’ for the staff to supervise, or what is ‘best’ for the children? Another aspect of the social environment includes the way staff speak to the children and one another, and the way the children have learned to speak to each other.

4. The cultural environment

The cultural environment includes attitudes and habits displayed by staff, which are often due in part to wider cultural values or to experiences from our own childhoods. For example, the types of play considered acceptable: is rough and tumble play okay or not? What play is appropriate for girls vs boys – should there be a difference? What does ‘keeping children safe’ mean – what is the attitude to risk?

Obviously there are both interplay and crossover between these four elements of the play environment.

How to create an effective play environment

The physical environment combines with these other aspects of the environment and throws open questions like:
  • Does the playspace encourage exploration of space and materials?
  • Are the challenges presented in the playspace appropriate for the children using it?
  • Does the playspace facilitate enjoyable and meaningful play for children?
  • Does the playspace allow the staff to easily supervise and support play?
The key to a genuinely effective play environment is to take all the environmental factors into consideration when designing the space. It is also important to bring all the stakeholders on board for the journey (staff, parents and the children themselves).

We therefore use our knowledge of the non-physical environmental factors to inform our design. So, we design for the specific user group in order to ensure a playspace responds to the nuanced needs of all potential players and other users. For example, in considering adult users of the playspace, we ensure that appropriate seating is part of the design, and that there is consideration of their line of sight for supervision of children. These design considerations will support increased outdoor play opportunities being made possible. 

It is also important to start conversations with adults in these settings about related concepts such as the value of play and the important role that appropriate risk plays in development. This is so that, over time, the non-physical environment can fully support and reflect the play-enhanced physical environment, with the result being children who can experience better outcomes in their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Sounds simple? It is both a simple and a highly complex process to create a playspace where children have opportunities to develop, extend their skills and play experiences, and most importantly, to have fun!

Nature Play Solutions consists of a multi-disciplinary team working together to create wonderful playspaces for children. Our occupational therapist is Emma Lawrence, B.Sc. (Occupational Therapy).

When discussing these environmental domains, Emma has been referring to a framework known as the Canadian Model for Occupational Performance and Engagement. You can find more about this framework in the book ‘Enabling Occupation II’, edited by Townsend & Polatajko (2007).