What is play?

1. Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

As educators we are constantly hearing and talking about ‘the value of play,’ and throughout the decades numerous people have attempted to define the meaning of this all-important word. The definition above is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. And I have to say, I’m not in total agreement with it. Enjoyment? Definitely. Recreation? Absolutely. But the lack of serious or practical purpose doesn’t sit right with me. Anyone who has seen children exploring a mud kitchen or building junk models will know that there is an awful lot of purpose in their activity!
I would say that the majority of teachers nowadays would not dismiss the value of play. It forms a major part of the teacher training programs. But all too often we are quick to fall into the routine of “you can play when you’ve done your work.” A classroom with play in does not necessarily mean that the play is being valued. And by teaching our children that what we value is the work they do when they are with an adult is directly devaluing their play and discouraging independent learning.

For me, play is a wildly subjective matter. What could be considered engaging and enjoyable by one could be seen as bland and tedious by another. As facilitators of learning it is up to us to find what play is for each individual chid that we encounter. Having a classroom with well-structured and open-ended areas of provision allows the child to decide how they play and ultimately, how they learn.
An experienced colleague of mine recently described a good-quality, provision-based classroom as “feeling like a chocolate box.” I love this analogy as it conjures up ideas of an environment full of irresistible provocations with endless possibilities for the children to choose from. (And having seen her classroom full of happy and fully-engaged children I know that she has it!)

Everyone will have their own definition of play. (I know I have dozens on a Pinterest board to which I regularly refer!) But what I think should be our aim as educators is not to define play as one specific thing, but to constantly change and adapt our definition and understanding of play in order to best suit our current children.

And who better to ask than the players themselves? I did this with my very first class and I was shocked by some of the responses. The answer that stuck in my head was,

“Play is what we do when the teacher says we can.”

I was mortified! I thought that I had it sussed. I had areas of provision and had read countless books and articles about how to set up a play-based environment. But I was so busy setting up what I thought would be a good classroom or what a book told me would make a good classroom that I’d forgotten about the most important opinion of all: the children.

Taking the jump and setting up a completely play-based learning environment is scary. Especially if like me you are in the early stages of your career. But before changing a single thing, we have to be clear about this ‘play’ thing and what it will look like. And that will be different for every school, class, teacher and child.

If I can give you just one thing to take away from this article, it’s this. If you want to know what play is, talk to a child. Ask them what they think play is. Observe their play from a distance and see what it looks like. Because ultimately they’re the ones that define play, not us.




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