“Mum, can we play that game again?” I raise one eyebrow from behind my coffee cup. This means: “Which one?” From behind her back, my daughter now reveals the dreaded plastic dolls who – though originally identifiable as merchandise models of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and Cho Chang – now look more like survivors from final chapter of Lord of the Flies. In recent weeks, Hermione has had a brutally short Lockdown buzzcut, and Ron is now sporting a pair of tie dye leggings that we fashioned out of an old tshirt and had to sew him into. Olivia Newton-John – you’re not the only one, love! Leaning in the doorway, she looks at me and shrugs, swinging Cho by her heel like bait. I close my book. This means: “Okay.” And off we go again. It seems as if there is no escape from these repetitive imaginary games in our house. Oh, sure, they play on their own – and together – often enough, but children also like to bring their parents into the game for a number of reasons. When the game is ‘stuck’ and the narrative needs an injection of ideas. When there is a key character that nobody else is willing to play. Or, most commonly, to provide comic relief when the ‘serious business’ of play (Fenske, 2016) requires a lift. Here is another game that the boys want me to play with them, over and over. There are five finger puppets; they have two each and I am the Gingerbread Man. Along comes the horse, the cat, the fox and, predictably, they each snarf a button. Now, don’t quote me on whether they are gumdrop buttons, chocolate buttons, or made from crystallised Mountain Dew, but essentially the Gingerbread Man gets increasingly wound up (a fairly ludicrous Who Framed Rodger Rabbit? voice is required for this game) and transitions from dramatic pauses and gasps of surprise, to jumping up and down yelling “Those are MY chocolate buttons!” Who knew it would be such a hit? Not me. I would certainly never have come up with the darned game, if I had known we’d be playing it every single morning after breakfast.
When it comes to joining in with the imaginary games of young children, the point is not that the games in themselves are tedious, but rather, they are not our games. Adults play games, too. “Let’s repaint the bathroom,” is currently a popular one in our house, as is: “Where shall we – hopefully – go on holiday next year?” Neither of these games are very popular with our children, although Teenwolf and I do try to drag them into the game at any given opportunity. “Oooooh, how about Nepal?” I say, spinning the globe. The baby looks up. “Buttons!” he says, brandishing the Gingerbread Man. Okay, fine. The truth is, I spent the majority of my childhood lost in my own imaginative play, too, and I cannot deny that so-called ‘deep play’ forms an excellent foundation for mental agility and resilience in adult life. I had a particularly free-range childhood, I now realise, even for my generation. Games for me included endless, extended scenarios involving plastic ponies and Playmobil cowboys, but also a large amount of outdoor ‘roaming’; physically, and within my own imagination. It would be difficult to imagine many children enjoying this kind of freedom now, such is our safeguarding culture. But, looking back, all those hours of immersive play – getting stuck up various trees, or else finding it was nearly dark and picking my way back through the fields at twilight – weren’t for nothing. Play teaches a whole host of subtle life skills: game etiquette, dramatic timing, flexibility, escapism, the ability to entertain yourself and, importantly, the power to govern your own world. When I was 20, I nearly drowned a horse. We were wading on the beach, he lost his footing and, once his head went under, he didn’t know which way was down or up. Even now, writing this, my stomach does a somersault recalling it. The horse was huge – nearly 17 hands – and his body thrashing in the water was lethal, plus, as we drifted, I could feel the undertow of a current. I don’t know what mental resources I harnessed that day, forcing my eyes to open against the salt water and heaving against his shoulders, again and again, trying to roll him, my feet slipping deeper. I was not alone. But even with two adults giving everything we had, it is a nightmare that I still wince at the memory of. The horse did not die. We all made it, just. This game required tenacity, and we played it out to the end.
Imaginative play, therefore, although it can seem supremely repetitive and dull from an adult perspective, is in fact crucial to a child’s ability – as they grow up – to harness mental creativity and, essentially, to feel in charge of their own lives; the ability to ‘write their own story’. This is no small thing. Research indicates that common feelings of depression and anxiety are frequently linked to the amount of control we feel we have over our own lives (Gray, 2015). Much of our human experience is nowadays so minutely governed by external forces, that it is no wonder mental health is frequently portrayed as being at a ‘crisis point’. Babies who should be in arms, as nature intended, are ‘taught to sleep’ by being left in dark rooms to cry. Children and teenagers find the unfolding horizon of their world swiftly curbed by the rules and expectations of mainstream schooling. And adults find themselves hostages in a neoliberal system, where freedom is largely illusory and state control increasingly hovers between authoritarian and boarder-line dystopian. Where is the freedom to roam, that we humans so instinctively seek? It must be in our minds. Studies show that encouraging pretend play in young children has a tangible positive impact on language skills, empathy, and the ability to visualise beyond the immediate context. In an article for Psychology Today, research demonstrated that ‘an important benefit of early pretend play may be its enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, creativity.’ (Russ, 2004; Singer & Singer, 2005) This confirms my own feelings. When we are left to play as children, we approach adult life in a ‘playful’ way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we consciously act out games (although people do), but more likely that we bring a playful and inventive attitude to the daily grind of life, as well as the inevitable challenges that we meet along the way. As a teacher, I have come across many children who don’t know how to play at all. Sometimes they are withdrawn, occasionally they are incredibly stressed high-achievers, but mostly they are bullies, of one form or another. Unhappy in their empty inner world, they lash out at whatever they can reach. I submit the theory that this is a growing problem worldwide and that, rather than reacting with counter-measures to the increasing toxicity of late-modern living, we should turn in the other direction and go back to the start – childhood. It’s time to play, again.
You would think playing with children comes naturally to most parents, but alas, it does not. Only recently, I was working with a lovely couple through a series of Zoom meetings, in which I had to explain the simple concept that you need to ‘get down on the floor’ to play with small children. I felt like a fraud, offering such obvious advice as if it carried the weight of an expert authority, but in fact they messaged me about a week later to say that this had been a breakthrough for them. That knowledge makes me pleased and concerned in equal measure. Parents are one thing, but the truth is that many children spend the majority of their time with other caregivers; possibly grandparents, but more likely a nursery or childminder setting. And here come a new set of problems. The Early Years curriculum has caught on to the developmental benefits of play, and you will see this indicated in any literature relating to your local nursery or preschool. Staff receive ‘play training’ and, I believe, do a largely good job of encouraging children to engage in play throughout the day. The rooms are also typically set out with brightly coloured toys and activities, from musical instrument boxes and puppet theaters, to sand tables and reading corners stacked with books. So far, so good. The difference, though, is that a lot of the play that takes place in these settings is what we might call ‘directed play’ and there is a clear reason for this. However thoughtful or ‘clued up’ staff are with regard to play, a structured group setting where – let’s face it – most of the children have not actively chosen to be, is not conducive to the kind of play I’m talking about; deep, imaginative, child-led play. The kind that often involves no toys or props at all. Donald Winnicott and Richard House have produced some interesting writing on this topic, indicating respectively the ‘true self’ that emerges through real play (Winnicott, 1971), as well as the emphasis placed on authentic autonomous play within Steiner education (House, 2020). In most childcare settings though, you’ll get a lot of “Katie, would you like to join us at the water-play table?” or “Ahmed, shall we check out what’s in the dressing up box?” but not so much wandering alone in the long grass, knotting stems together and slowly uncovering how your own mind works. In fact, probably none at all.
Back to the beginning. And where do we go from here? The world is changing at an alarming pace. Even the past 200 years of human history represent unrecognisable territory, in terms of the dynamics of mass industrial growth and globalisation; however the exponential acceleration associated with technological development over the past 50 years has knocked us off our ancestral feet and left us truly standing on unknown ground. Upright apes that we are – descendants of homo erectus – we attempt to navigate this futuristic landscape with the contradictory skill and carelessness characteristic of our kind. We think we are gods, but we are not. On an evolutionary scale, we are actually closer on the timeline to Tyrannosaurus Rex than he was to Stegosaurus. We are closer to outer space in many parts of the world, than we are to the coast. And many of us spend more time glued to our mobile phones than squatting down to play with the small humans that we have brought into being. I don’t have the answer in this essay. What I do know, is that every time I read an article bemoaning the impact child-rearing and, most recently, mass ‘homeschooling’ has on women’s careers, I want to bite my fist. Sure, I’m all about feminism and equality, but I resent that children are almost universally presented as a hindrance in their parents’ career paths. Our worldview has become so disturbingly adult-centered that we have squeezed childhood to death. Of course ‘the best place for children to learn is in school.’ Thank you, DfE, for your wisdom. Let’s have children in educational institutions as soon as possible,while adults work long hours in office jobs, and we’ll all tick along nicely, right? Only, we won’t. I just don’t see that the threads can hold much longer. Radical change is needed – and I don’t use that phrase lightly – to shift our cultural vision of what life’s about, to redefine the skills that matter (Compassion? Yes. Times tables? Probably not.), and to seek greater well-being for our children and grandchildren. Let’s play with them now. Let’s not complain about it. One day, it might save someone’s life.