The Joy of Play

Some fifty years ago now I read a wonderful book. It was called Ring of Bright Water and its author was Gavin Maxwell. The book, as I recall, was about otters. And although it was based in the rather cold and austere waters of Scotland, it was a lot about play.

Otters are irascible creatures. Maxwell said they “were extremely bad at doing nothing.” He recounted how they were obsessed with play. No unoccupied moment was wasted. They cavorted and indulged in spectacular demonstrations of exuberance.

And it seems that most, perhaps all mammals, indulge in play. Now obviously play appears to be a source of great enjoyment for those indulging in it – but could it have a greater purpose? Evidence suggest that play is indeed important to the development of many species, including humankind. In humans, studies show that play enhances both intellectual and social skills including memory, verbal ability, and interpersonal relationships.

It has been noted that whilst play is prevalent in the animal kingdom it is more intense and prolonged among the social animals. Research shows that play among such creatures as wolves, lions and chimpanzees helps the group bonding and enables the “pecking order” to be sorted without too much physical damage to the participants.

Some social animals indulge in play as a precursor to hunting. African wild dogs, for example, prior to hunting, will gather together sniffing one another and bounding about in energetic play. As time goes by the playing gets wilder and rougher. Finally as if they have egged each other on they gather together and set off in search of prey. (It may be reminiscent of scenes in the dressing shed before a football match!)

Obviously play is more often to be observed in the young.

The marvellous Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass wrote:

There was a child went forth every day;

And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;

And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

For the last century and a half the utility of play has been debated. Freud believed that play was a way of expressing socially unacceptable behaviours and as such play was therapeutic. The zoologist Karl Groos believed that play in both humans and animals was a way of preparing for survival in the adult world. But more recently play began to be associated with general learning capability. The great educator, Maria Montessori, recognised the value of play in learning. She suggested that “play is the child’s work”. The psychologist Jean Piaget whose major work was about the intellectual development of children pointed out that play was crucial to one of the phases of intellectual development that he called “assimilation”.

Whilst play is important in animals generally, because of the high brain capacity and the slow process of maturing to adulthood, in humans play probably assumes an even higher level of importance. In humans perhaps twenty five per cent of our lives are devoted to preparing for maturity. A good deal of that preparation is devoted to play. Play provides an opportunity for a wide range of experiential learning.

Play seems correlated with exuberance. The exuberant person, far from simply responding to the environment engages proactively with it. Such exuberance triggers exploration and imagination. Such people are not passive responders to their environments, they interact with it.

The Professor of Psychiatry at the johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kay Jamieson, writes:

“Spirited play rewards exploration with pleasure, and propels young animals and children into more intimate and varied contact with their physical environment; play sees to it that necessary skills are acquired and a diversity of experiences is tried. Joyous states do other critically important things as well. They strengthen the bonds between members of a group and make more likely the group’s participation in shared activities that will benefit the group as a whole.”

She goes on to point out that the pleasure derived from playful activity has a far broader effect. Because of the mutual joy it creates it can fortify the ties between parent and child, teacher and student, leader and follower and lover and lover.

So what prompted me to write this essay extolling the virtues of play? Recently I read an article from The Times where it reported that in British children happiness is on the decline. The research was carried out by the Children’s Society and was funded by the Church of England. The report found that children’s happiness was diminishing and (among other things):

“…..children who embraced simple solutions and pleasures were the happiest. Those who chatted to their parents about problems, had good friendships, got plenty of fresh air by walking or cycling, played sport or read a good book, felt a lot better than those that did not. Having good relationships with their parents and siblings was the single most important ingredient of a youngster’s happiness.”

But as well as all that, Lucy Beresford, a psychotherapist who helped with the studies, said that the young people were paying a high price for their parents’ anxieties. She reported that almost all of the young people studied had issues with autonomy – ie that their parents were over-protective. Concerns about children’s safety were restricting their opportunities to play. As we saw above play is an important developmental activity and being deprived of appropriate opportunities to play would seem to have wide-ranging deleterious effects.

I have no wish to see children injured but I wonder what the cost is of restricting their play. I note with some alarm that many Australian schools ban “running-around” games like “tiggy” and “red rover” all at a time when there are increasing concerns about obesity and the lack of physical fitness of our children.


I was about six years old and on one dewy morning tried to master the “monkey bars” at my primary school only to slip off. The resultant fall caused me to fracture my right arm. In today’s context, on reflection there were two interesting outcomes. Firstly, my parents had not the slightest inclination to sue the school. Secondly, I had no urge to prevent my children playing on such apparatus or to set up a protest movement campaigning to banning them from schools.


Yet over the last couple of decades we have seen the removal of monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, climbing frames and such-like from our playgrounds.


An article in The Weekend Australian a couple of years back stated:


“Last month the Queensland Department of Education upgraded the risk category of swimming lessons from medium to high, despite noting there has never been a single drowning in the history of the school swimming lessons program. Preliminary recommendations had proposed such a high level of qualification for supervisors that it put the program at risk, which would have exposed countless children to the real risk of growing up on an island unable to swim.”


Activities that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought – like walking to school on their own – are now seen as too risky and adults who permit them are seen as irresponsible. Some parents are afraid to let their children play unsupervised.


In a previous blog I quoted material from the Kidsafe website.

On their web site Kidsafe reported:

“More children die of injury than die of cancer, asthma and infectious diseases combined.”

“Each year about 250 Australian children (aged 0-14 years) are killed and 58,000 hospitalised by unintentional injuries – the kind often referred to as accidents.”

Journalist, Cassandra Wilkinson, writing in the Australian, countered the Kidsafe statement thus:


“In reality serious injuries from play are pretty rare. A 2009 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found the most common causes of child deaths were traffic accidents, drowning and assault. The most common causes of injuries were falls, road accidents, poisoning, burns and scalds, and assault. And while the number of falls is high the severity is usually not. According to the Australian Bureau of statistics 93% of falls were of 1metre or less, such as falling off chairs or out of bed.”


Tim Gill, British childhood play expert and author of the book “No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society” writes:


“Although there is a widely held view that children grow up faster today, in fact their lives are far more controlled than they were thirty years ago.”


“In this shrinking domain of childhood, our tendency to always view children as fragile, means we are not encouraging them to develop their natural resilience – learning to manage risk in an age-appropriate way.”


“This is not an unconditional plea for the deregulation of childhood: children want adults to help them stay safe, and of course we must accept that responsibility.”


“But rather than having a nanny state, where risk aversion dominates the landscape, we should be aspiring to a child-friendly society, where communities look out for each other and for children”


Penny Nicholls, from the Children’s Society in the UK said, “Over-protecting children carries different risks to under-protecting them, but it can still cause long-term damage to their well-being. If we continue to try and create a risk-free life for our children, it will be childhood itself that’s at risk.”


Gill argues that trying to eliminate risks from playgrounds have made them sterile and unattractive options for many children. He points out that in the last few years in the UK some 300 million pounds has been spent on high-tech safety surfacing in playgrounds. He argues that because 1 child dies every 3-4 years in a playground this is a disproportionate response. In the same time, over 2,500 children died in traffic accidents. He protests, logically, that if that investment had been made into traffic calming perhaps the lives of hundreds of children might have been saved.


In preparing this material I came across a little bit of research that was quite depressing. The research involved interviewing children about their desires and their fears.


The researcher reported, “‘Risky’ themes emerged, such as being afraid of strangers, kidnapping, road traffic and dark places. Children showed particular anxiety about strangers and kidnapping, even when playing in and around their home. These two risks were amplified above other perceptions of risk, even though they are the least likely to happen.”


The children in the study wanted to play outdoors but were too afraid to do so.


Because of these fears, our children are having their desires thwarted to play in the park, play cricket in the street, explore the local bushland, fish in the nearby creek, walk to school, run an errand for mum, and largely for the wrong reasons.


No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much we spend, we can’t eliminate the risks to our children. We should take what reasonable steps we can to protect our children but we can never eliminate all risk. And managing appropriate risk, rather than sheltering them from it, is perhaps one of the most important lessons we would want our children to learn. They are exposed to risks as adults and by then they normally don’t have parents who can guide them. (And maybe then they become victims and blame the state.) So when are they going to learn about life if we shelter them from every minor possibility of harm?


As I wrote in a previous blog:

“Our animal liberation activists have been berating us because we continue to pen chickens in restricted enclosures. If we continue to follow the dictates of the nanny state our children will fare no better”.


Have we all now as adults collectively forgotten the joys of play? Is it not worth some investment and perhaps a little risk to lead our children down this magical path of exuberance, fantasy and freedom?

Perhaps we could do a lot worse than listen to the words of this fabulous little poem by the American poet Delmore Schwartz.

“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing : It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit,
The pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong
When I sing my song,
But I don’t tell the grown-ups, because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up
And forgot what they knew
And they are sure
I will forget it someday too.
They are wrong. They are wrong.
When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold,
I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me,
I will always be new!”

[As an aside if you want to read a wonderful little parable about play get hold of a copy of the children’s book How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and illustrated by the fabulous Quentin Blake.]

5 Replies to “The Joy of Play”

  1. Ted – as a “surrogate” grandparent, I could not agree more with your article’s later comments.

    I think this piece needs to be submitted to our national newspapers. It is a topic which needs to be more openly discussed. Our children already are at risk of losing out on the play which is vital to their development, as well as learning that life is not without pain and risk.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your blog this week. A very good read which makes me more determined to find like minded parents who can try to keep an eye out around the neighbourhood for our children as we let them venture out a little more. We have a beautiful nature reserve up the road and I am often scowled at when suggesting with other parents in the area that it would be good to let them roam through it as a group or merely letting them walk to each other’s houses. A sad state of affairs. But report of an attempted abduction of a high school student on their way home and another of a female runner being followed has raised community fears once more. It seems my mission is dealt another decent blow.

    Jamieson’s point that spirited play brings about an intimate relationship with the environment is a strong one. One that has been the basis of play for Aboriginal children for thousands of years. Their strong connection with their land and ability to survive is borne of play amongst everything that surrounds them from infancy. I am presently reading “The Way of the Whirlwind” by Elizabeth and Mary Durack to my 3 children. Their eyes are wide with the thought of being able to roam freely and explore their surroundings, to meet a friendly crocodile who sets them on their journey to find their lost toddler brother. Set in the Kimberley’s, where Mary & Elizabeth grew up on their parents vast station learning and playing with ‘the brown children’, it holds a glimpse into their country of the dreamtime, “a country full of the strangest of bush creatures where dreams and the everyday things were so mixed up that nobody bothered to find out which was which”. A place where the “things they dreamed about were more real than anything else, because in their dreams they met the bush creatures as they really were and understood the things they said and could speak to them in their own language”. The story has engaged thousands of children over the last 70 years but now perhaps where once the readers thought it an extension of their own play outside in the suburb, my children sadly may see it as merely a “dreamland” they could never experience without “POS” (parent over shoulder – a term that now crops up when they are texting or emailing – well at least they haven’t lost the desire to shrug off parental supervision).

  3. Ted

    How true!

    When my boys were at kindy, the teacher explained (to us young and inexperienced parents)that kids explore and learn through play.

    It made me remember what I had learned when I was younger and how the lessons of making mistakes (like falling off a bike and scraping my knee) had helped me in later life.

    Keep up the good – no great work.

    Mark Shaw

  4. There is more to this topic than is immediately obvious Ted. The fundamental issue here is not restricted to our children. The real issue is the almost religious belief that all risk is bad. As a species we are actively attempting to eliminate risk from our lives. This is most evident in the work place safety laws that currently exist and the duty of care that is legislated along with them. Employers have no alternative but to set a goal of zero harm for their employees and users of their facilities. On the face of it this seems a noble enough goal but when you see where it leads I think its merits are questionable. There are a few side effects that I have witnessed that I would like to share. For starters in a zero risk world you don’t need to think or have common sense. If everything is safe all the time it does not matter what you do, you will be OK. Many of the training programs try to address this problem but they have been largely unsuccessful in my opinion. As a result we seem to be creating a world of dependent people. We are well trained to follow procedures and we depend on things and systems outside ourselves for our well being. A lot like the family dog really. We have also created a litigation culture where anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. This was once considered immaturity, now it’s just normality.

    Because we are equally responsible for our employees, customers and suppliers the zero risk world spreads into our schools, shopping centres, parks, water ways, beaches and so on. Will there come a day when there will be a fence up to stop us swimming in the ocean? I could not have believed schools would ban running or slippery slides but they have, so anything in possible here.

    There is no doubt that the world we are creating is getting safer all the time. The question is do we want to live in a zero risk world? Is the cure worse than the problem. I liken the current situation to a religion. In a work context you must believe in the value of and possibility of a zero harm world. Failure to believe is attacked aggressively by the true believers. There is no point in arguing with these people because as with religion faith rather than logic is what matters.

  5. I missed the last several weeks of blogs on my favourite topics of altruism, evolution, and mental illness. I really enjoyed some thought provocating reading (including the comments by Greg, and of course Dr Phil) having just read them tonight. I have not been able to play in near real time so my comments are out of step, but kept very brief nonetheless. I hope that is ok.

    In regards to altruism, I do not see anything outside the fundamental principle of selfishness. No matter what book, author and perspective on this topic, unless the definition of the word altruism is changed, real altruism does not exist. Selfish – meaning own interests first; Altruism – meaning others interests before self causing a reduction in fitness of self. The evolutionary explanation of apparent altruistic acts are self preserving acts, and while their occurrence benefits the group (or another), the survival of the group or another improves the long term survival of the self I’d a dependancy environment, which we cannot escape. This is also how and why religion occurs as it does. Religion epitomizes selfishness. The goal is what you (as in self) will being doing and how you (as in self) will be treated in the afterlife.

    Mental health vs medical health represent the age old unsolved divide between mind and matter. I do agree with attempting to advance mental health diagnoses with science though. I mean evidence based science as opposed to science with a profit and/or political driver. I’m not sure what could replace science if it wasn’t for something ridiculous like homeopathy or clairvoyance.

    I have much to say on The Joy of Play at this late hour, however I will be confronted in a few weeks by a little human that will be totally dependent on my wife and I for many years. Balancing risks and benefits is sure to be challenging to my foundational beliefs and guiding reason.

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