Perspectives of Play: National Play, Playing and Playwork Conference 2024

Our society and culture are changing all the time. We are continually learning from each other, learning to listen, learning more about different perspectives and hopefully working on our collective empathy. A different language comes with this collective cultural growth. We apply these perspectives and language to the original context which was, but then also apply this language to different areas of life. In this way, a new lens or a new perspective is shined in a broad spectrum of our culture.

This is what I noticed at the National Play, Playing and Playwork Conference in Melbourne during March this year (2024).

Colonial Perspectives

Associate Professor Michelle Langley from Griffiths University is an archaeologist studying children’s play in the Ice Age. Her talk was absolutely fascinating! She shared that Archaeology popularised by gentleman scholars in the 1800s was mostly full of very wealthy, white European males. The science (and art) of Archaeology looks at artefacts and other clues, like footprints left in the mud, to make a ‘best guess’ of what might be happening. Traditionally, this rich, male European culture has directed some of these guesses towards ritual and ceremonial purposes. Michelle is now challenging the original perspective of this assumption and putting a new question forward; maybe some of these situations are to do with children’s play. Footprints of children in a deep, dark, narrow cave may not be related to initiation rites. Perhaps, it could be children exploring new territory. Carved objects of animals or women may not all be objects of ceremony. Maybe perhaps some have been carved as special toys for some special children. We would love to see children involved in this research, looking at some of these ‘clues’ and suggesting their interpretation.

Colonisation has been a prevalent word in our media and language in recent years. In our nature connection movement, ‘decolonisation practise’ is slowly becoming more known in countries across the world. As a society, we have become conscious of how some of our ancestors have acted to take space, control and replace existing culture with another culture. “Colonialism can be defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” (Blakemore, 2023) At this conference, we have been considering how ‘adult agendas’ can interrupt the play of children. As adults, we often feel we must differentiate children’s play into categories like nature-based play, outdoor play, digital play, play-based learning, free play, unstructured play, and so on. Play is ‘play’ in children’s eyes. Perhaps strategies that we call play-based learning are not play to children, as they include an adult agenda. To be play, activities should be “freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated” (Play Wales 2002).  

‘Colonisation of play’ describes when adults bring an agenda, interrupt, or try to control children’s play. This language has made us reflect more deeply on our actions around children’s play, how we decide when and when not to intervene.

In part, this ‘colonisation’ can be seen in how adults approach the aesthetics of children’s use of materials in space. We were challenged by Adventure Playgrounds and centres that intentionally choose not to ask children to clean up materials and loose parts used so that they can maximise the time they have to play freely and without agenda.

Adult Play Bias

We were also challenged by discussions around how digital play, too, is play. Children do not distinguish digital play from other types of play, like outdoor play, this is an adult agenda. They do not value one more highly than another. This also is an adult agenda. Associate Professor Kate Highfield from the University of Canberra communicated how she supports digital technology that allows children to be creative and engaged in play more than the technology that is passive entertainment. We also learned that digital play includes when children create a smartphone out of wood and paint at our programs and when we use our digital technologies to take photos of their play.

When we value one of our defined types of play over others, this comes from a ‘play bias’. Play bias can come from the nostalgia we feel for the type of play we grew up with. We were challenged to think about what our play bias is. How are we bringing it into our perspective of children’s play today? We have been considering how we impact our interactions with children, and when we need to recognise that our play bias may be impacting children’s play in a negative way.

Displacement of Play

Displacement, when people or animals are moved out of their homes because of another group’s actions, is another word that we are using and thinking about more in our society. We heard from Judd Walsh and Jessica Grimes, Early Learning Education lecturers at Victoria University about their amazing pop-up, loose parts play program. Pre-service teachers are invited to apply for a placement as playworkers in loose-parts pop-up play experiences around the Melbourne area. After some training on playwork, they source loose parts and transport it to parks to provide a play opportunity for local children. The program has been very successful and has exploded from 27 students to 5,500 students in just 1 year. The program is run in partnership with local councils.

One council in Fitzroy wanted to activate a small ‘unused’ park between buildings. However, this place was not unused; the activities there were undervalued.  When sea containers of loose parts and lots of children came into the space; some people were displaced. Homeless people who slept there, drug users and street drinkers, pigeon feeders and even the pigeons themselves were all now no longer able to use the space and essentially needed to find a new ‘home’. This created an ethical dilemma for the team from the university. They found opportunities to heal relationships with some of these people and considered how to create places for everyone, ‘spatial justice’.

Marc Armitage showed us historical photos of play in London, along with stories of forensic play and his own play and playworking experience. We saw through these photos how children’s play was displaced from the streets, alleyways and places of movement (not by TV or TV alone) but by cars. Robyn Munroe Miller shared how councils and playworkers moved children’s play from the streets into playgrounds, and now we are trying to move play back into the streets through the 1000 Play Streets program for Australian Local Governments. This program is a movement to reclaim quiet residential streets as places for neighbours of all ages to connect and play, to create stronger and healthier communities. The Australian Institute of Play shared how they have worked with some neighbourhood champions to reactivate play and empower children to coordinate getting together to play across front yards and quiet roads. Access for children to places of play is incredibly important, and cars have been getting in the way of this over the last 50 years.

Equitable Access to Play

We visited The Venny Adventure Playground, an accessible, supervised playspace or ‘Hands, Heart and Home’ for local children around Kensington. Many of these children are from low-socioeconomic areas, experience trauma and neglect. They find safety, food, community, and play at the Venny. Children aged 5-12 are free to come and go, it is free to enter, and children are free to play how they choose. Most children can walk to this playspace, but some will catch public transport, and a few will be dropped off by their caregivers.

Access to play is important as the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child Article 31 recognises “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

Also at the conference was Ria Sugars from The Atypical Educator, challenging the notion of play deficit in autistic children. Instead of this deficit model, she proposes Autistic Play as a different way and style of playing. Speakers from Learning to Lead in Early Childhood and Gowrie Victoria spoke about sexuality in play, and how this is linked to identity and is manifested through words, actions and engagement. As our society changes and considers a diversity of people and perspectives, so too are we looking as a community of playworkers at the perspective we take on play.

Play as a verb

One way we can consider changing this way of seeing is to use the word ‘playing’ as a verb rather than ‘play’ as a noun. Kylie Keane from Keane About consultancy introduced us to the recent Play Wales’ research review, Playing and Being Well, which speaks about verbs as actions and processes that keep changing and moving, whereas a noun is a fixed object that can be judged and valued. Considering the title for their research review the Play Wales team reflected the following.

“Both ‘play’ and ‘wellbeing’ are nouns, words that describe things. A problem with seeing both play and wellbeing as things is that they become fixed. In addition, such words need defining, a process that further fixes ideas about play and wellbeing. Play becomes an activity that can be provided, it has an opposite (not-play), it can be judged as good or bad, it can be instrumentalised. Wellbeing becomes something that individuals either have or not, something that we can achieve, once and for all.

Talking about ‘playing’ and ‘being well’ foregrounds processes and relationality. It foregrounds the myriad objects, affects, ideas, practices and more that come together to produce moments of playing and being well in temporary assemblages. It means paying attention to the conditions that support the emergence of playing and being well in fluid and sometimes fleeting ways and in ways that bring change that can have both immediate and longer- term effects. It also means that interventions to support children’s play need to acknowledge the differences and singularities of such assemblages. Although some broad principles can be made about what makes playing and being well more likely, these are also influenced by many other local and individual conditions.”

For a three-day conference, we have many deep considerations for our own playwork and dreams for the future. At Educated by Nature, we are conscious of the changing nature of play and children’s play culture. Attending conferences like these to hear stories of challenges and successes helps us learn and grow in the way we pay attention to the conditions we provide to support playing at our programs.