What is play?

Play is ‘what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas, in their own way and for their own reasons.’

(Getting Serious About Play, 2004)

Another description commonly used is ‘Play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child. Play can be fun or serious. Through play children explore social, material and imaginary worlds and their relationship with them, elaborating all the while a flexible range of responses to the challenges they encounter. By playing, children learn and develop as individuals and as members of the community.’ (Best Play, 2000)

We certainly witness all sorts of things happening when children play – children taking on new identities, creating stories and scenarios, trying out all the incredible things their bodies can do (climbing , swinging, running), making and creating all sorts of items for their play, and so on.

But what is really going on behind all that?

Play is an instinctive behaviour and children play in ways that support their development and immediate wellbeing. The benefits come from children being in the moment, not from focusing on a final product or destination.

Therefore play is different from other types of recreation or leisure activities that children may enjoy. Play is not about children choosing between pre-determined activities, where adults have expectations about what will happen next or a format to follow. When children are playing freely, adults may notice: games starting up and then breaking down again; rules being fiercely negotiated and agreed then broken and re-negotiated; children moving freely around, taking resources anywhere they feel like; resources being combined in unusual ways; or children taking apart what they have just spent 30mins making and turning it into something else.

Although all sorts of free-time opportunities are beneficial to children, playing freely has its own unique benefits. Current theory and research in the play sector highlights the role of play in shaping the brain, particularly the areas that concern emotion and motivation. By playing, children develop flexible responses to the social and physical world around them and the ‘as if’ nature of play allows children to experience emotions such as fear or anger first-hand, in a safe context. Not only that, there are the feelings of confidence and resilience gained from that independence of thought and action, and from taking risks and overcoming challenges.

Of course, over and above that, children will have all sorts of reasons for choosing to play in the ways they do – to make friends, to work through something that is worrying them or to try to master something they are finding difficult are just a few examples. Play outdoors (especially in contact with nature) brings even further benefits, as the scope for delighting all the senses, for adventure and challenge, for developing a sense of respect for nature as well as simply fresh air and physical activity just cannot be found indoors.

So although play looks and feels like tremendous fun, it is really quite serious (isn’t nature clever?). Play matters. Therefore what we do as adults involved with children play matters too.