His words are a reminder of the importance of this type of play – not to be confused with game-playing. All of us have experienced or witnessed it at some stage in our lives. Matthew Collings, the art critic, was struck by how Venetian painter Titian incorporated play as a vital part of his process when creating his masterpieces. Poet, painter and musician Billy Childish recognised it in his son as he played with a plastic dinosaur toy. His son would make up its thoughts, explain its likes and dislikes, and fly it around the house on adventures, spontaneously creating a whole dinosaur world. There was no coherent story being told, just different ideas, thoughts and actions being blended and tested.
Unlike Titian, whose play got turned into art, Childish’s son didn’t care about having anything to display at the end of his play. You could therefore say it was pure play, because it had no end in mind other than the pleasure of playing itself. While art displays some of the knowledge found in play and holds it to account in some way, pure play has no interest in leaving a trace, and any use it has is merely incidental.
The question to ask is whether pure play is pointless and something we should all grow out of? Should parents and teachers, for example, be discouraging their children and students from engaging in play, and putting all their efforts in learning instead? I would vehemently argue, no! Because pure play has a foundational role in what we do and should therefore be nurtured and encouraged.
If we don’t give people – whether children or adults – opportunities to play, we run the risk of stifling the very taproot of all our efforts to learn new things. Understanding this helps us grasp why, when we’re stuck on a problem, for instance, we play around with it for a while, find a new angle, think outside the box and improvise. Play is what we gasp at when we see an unthinkable piece of brilliance solving what seemed like an impossible problem, be it in sport, physics, cooking or ethics. Play unlocks things. It is spontaneous, fun and very human – which are all good reasons to engage in play. And at a time when our world is facing so many existential and ethical threats, and problem-solvers seem gridlocked, play may well be how we start finding the solutions.
There is, however, a tendency to talk about play from on high and look down at it. Yet by doing so we are missing its importance and failing to see play as a key part of any process of investigating and knowing. Because play is its own legitimate source. It is how we bring the world into renewed focus, which is why make-believe is the key element of play, alongside improvisation, fantasy and whimsy. Play is a vital part of any process of learning and shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to more structured, regimented approaches, because they actually complement each other.
So how can parents assess whether schools are giving play enough attention? For one, school leaders should be seen to be committed to play. It should be embedded it in every learning sequence, so that students not only enjoy themselves, but also get to sharpen their wits and broaden their ideas about what they are learning. Teachers should be able to explain how they plan for this, extending their repertoire so play can supplement the other resources available for expression and problem solving. Ask yourself - and your school: Is spontaneity and playfulness rewarded so that play is incentivised?
Curriculum is important. The recent squeeze on arts subjects – dance, drama, sports, creative writing, music and so on – has curtailed those subjects where play has traditionally been well established. Schools should therefore be including these in the curriculum offering elsewhere, and ensure expertise in these matters is shared across the whole school.
In an ideal world schools would also set up research groups to look at play and develop awareness of what it is, what it can do and why we do it. The body of literature by biologists, cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, educationalists, therapists and philosophers is vast and fascinating and should inform what educators do. For example, there is fascinating work on how play has helped trauma patients. Young children are given sandboxes and toys and are then encouraged to play. The result is that they express themselves better than they do using language. Schools need to draw on such research.
All of these elements combined enable us to build a culture where play is seen not as an outlier in the learning process but as an essential part. This benefits not only students, but also teachers, who can expect to be asked to play themselves. Indeed, I often start training days by asking my staff to sing or dance or do something playful – it creates an atmosphere of fun and intellectual stimulation, where everyone gets used to the idea of thinking outside the box, to achieve the very best for everyone.
Educational expert Lev Vygotsky wrote: ‘In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.’
I think today we’re living in times when we all need to be a head taller than ourselves. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s play!