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

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