The seriously important business of child’s play

Michael Rosen is right about the value of free play (Skip the kindergarten cop routine: free play is vital for young children, 23 April). Those arguing differently have not just failed to grasp elementary truths about learning, they have forgotten, or misunderstood, what it is to be a child.

Ironically, the overemphasis on “structured play” may be shrinking children’s capacity, and disabling their readiness, to engage more imaginatively with their worlds. Imposing so much organised activity is not just burdensome, it erodes their ability to cope with the boredom that has always been a fixture in children’s lives. Decades of validating only those activities that can be yoked to “learning objectives” has encouraged the belief that unstructured time is an affront to young minds unable to cope without a prescribed stimulus.

In fact, it was often the need to escape childhood tedium that inspired earlier generations to discover and invent. How many imaginary friends were born out of this necessity? How many entertaining faces emerged from otherwise unpromising shadows or crazily transmogrified clouds? Or insects discovered, tracing regular designs along a floor absent-mindedly stared at for 10 minutes?

Creativity is as often the product of a mind in search of a pattern as it is of one “scaffolded” by it. If we neglect this, we may be in danger of raising children able to spell serendipity without ever having experienced it.
Paul McGilchrist
Colchester, Essex

Play is indeed the way children learn, and learning to play is vital for them, as Michael Rosen says. On Friday I watched two six-year-olds for a good 20 minutes as they tried to haul a friend up to the top of a metal slide – his shoes were too slippy to climb the slope. They tried a variety of methods: using a plank and a plastic spade as tools; one lowering another down while holding on to him firmly at the top; and so on. Eventually a third child joined them, and with a new approach and much determination on all sides they succeeded.

Geometry, physics, mechanics, knowledge of their own bodies and of materials, balance, strength, cooperation, persistence, communication … the list goes on. Learning of that sort is what prepares us for the real challenges we may have to meet in life.

These children are lucky to have that opportunity. At six, in a Steiner kindergarten, they still have the freedom to learn through play. More formal learning will start for them in September. They haven’t been taught to read yet, but they have explored their world in readiness.
Annabel Gibb

I found Michael Rosen’s piece insightful and moving. I was fortunate to have time to do some studies in design and came to the conclusion (following on from Victor Papanek, a designer/educator) that we are all designers.

We have design sensibilities, which if encouraged and nurtured, serve to make us more confident, appreciative and aware of our agency. Free play is part of developing these sensibilities, which not only complements formal learning but enables children to appreciate their own lives, the lives of others and the world around us. What better foundation can children have for good mental health?
Paul Hartley
Witney, Oxfordshire

I congratulate the Guardian for highlighting the issue that matters most to children, but which is routinely ignored by adults: their profound need for time and space to play (Editorial, 25 April). It is true that schools and parents have a big role here, but so too does the government. Without legal status, children’s play spaces and services are perennially targeted for funding cuts, or overlooked altogether.

There are three policy changes that would go a long way towards addressing the problem. First, the UK should adopt into law the UN convention on the rights of the child and follow the UN’s guidance of 2013 on children’s right to play, which calls for appropriate legislation, funding and planning. Second, the Westminster government should follow the examples of Wales and Scotland by making the creation of children’s play opportunities a statutory duty on local government. Finally, there should be a cabinet minister for children, not just their education.
Adrian Voce
Author of Policy for Play: Responding to Children’s Forgotten Right

Comments are closed.