Extended by popular demand until 13th April 2020, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Play Well explores the lives of children, societies, historic toys, games and contemporary designs to try to work out why humans, both young and old, play. More broadly, the exhibition asks what does “play” mean and why is it important? With the help of a group of 5 – 11-year-olds from Argyle Primary School in Camden, Play Well examines the significance of play in childhood and its importance in education, social development, emotional resilience and physical wellbeing.
Research over the years has revealed that play is essential for learning about the world as well as having fun. There is also evidence the urge to play is not exclusive to humans. Animals, both domesticated and in the wild, have been observed playing. Polar bears have been caught on camera sliding down snowy hills on their stomachs and a monkey was filmed looking after a rock as though it was a baby or a doll. The concept of play is not something that is learnt, it is an instinct, however, it does require the right environment to be beneficial.
Philosophers, psychologists and educators have researched the value of play in education and, although there are many differing opinions, many think encouraging children to explore the world through their actions can be as good as or even better than formal teaching methods. One man who believed this was the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852). He described play as the “highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”.
Fröbel began his career in education in 1805 at a secondary school in Frankfurt where he learnt about the radical ideas of the educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Pestalozzi’s motto was “Learning by head, hand and heart” and he believed that every aspect of a child’s life, including play, contributed to their education. Inspired by these ideas, Fröbel went on to found a Play and Activity Institute in 1837, for which he later coined the word kindergarten.
Kindergarten, a German phrase meaning “garden of children”, reflected Fröbel’s belief that children should be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden”. Women, who were trained by Fröbel, opened kindergartens across Europe and the concept eventually reached the USA in 1856, although was conducted in German until 1870.
“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.”
Fröbel, Sonntagsblatt (c.1840)
For use in his kindergarten, Fröbel developed educational play materials, known as Fröbel Gifts (Fröbelgaben). These were used alongside other aspects of his child-centred approach to education, including singing, dancing and gardening. The Gifts were physical items children could play with that had educational benefits. Fröbel initially developed six gifts but they were eventually extended to twenty. Each focused on a different age group.
Gift one, intended for babies, involved soft balls of yarn in red, yellow, blue, purple, green and yellow. By holding, dropping, squeezing, rolling and hiding the balls, children developed an awareness of spatial relationships, movement and colour. Gift two, for one to two-year-olds, consisted of a wooden cube and sphere. Fröbel recorded children’s delight in discovering the sphere could roll but the cube would remain where it was placed. Gift three (2-3 years) also involved wooden cubes. This time, children could use eight small cubes to piece together a large cube or create another shape. Gift four (2-3 years) involved rectangular shapes that could also create a cube when placed together. Gift five (3-4 years) included a mix of cubes and rectangles and Gift six (4-5 years) introduced triangular prisms.
Further Gifts included tiles (Gift 7), rings (Gift 9), drawing slates (Gift 10), paper cutting (Gift 13), paper weaving (Gift 14) and paper folding (Gift 18). These gifts have influenced the many educational techniques that are still in use today, for instance, building blocks and alphabet blocks. Yet, it is not only education that these Gifts affected; they have been a source of inspiration to architects and artists.
Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) were exposed to Fröbel Gifts as children and the geometry of the building blocks stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Wright was given a set of Fröbel blocks when he was about nine years old. “For several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, played upon these ‘unit-lines’ with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod)—these were smooth maple-wood blocks. All are in my fingers to this day.”
Fuller recalled that it was Gift 19 that had the greatest effect on him. “The teacher brought us some toothpicks and semi-dried peas, and told us to make structures… I tried to make something that would work… I found the triangle held its shape when nothing else did.” Fuller went on to popularise the geodesic dome, a structure made up of triangular shapes.
The Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) also grew up with Fröbel’s philosophy. He adopted geometric shapes and patterns into his work and went on to work at the Bauhaus, a revolutionary school of art, architecture and design. Many teachers at the school were familiar with Fröbel and used his ideas in their teaching.
Although Fröbel’s kindergarten still exists today, other methods of teaching have been developed. The 20th century has been named “the century of the child” due to the amount of research and focus on childhood, education and play. In 1914, sisters Rachel (1859-1917) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) set up a nursery school for children of poorer families, which focused on both education, play and health. Children from impoverished families who were too young to go to school, often spent the day playing in dirty gutters, picking up all sorts of illnesses. Not only did the McMillan’s nursery provide a safe place for the children to play, but it provided a healthy environment too. “Once inside the child comes under the influence of the great healers, earth, sun, air, sleep and joy… the buildings should face south or south east, and in order to have this, the line of the rooms or shelters must be straight, the walls at either end shaped in butterfly form to catch all the sunshine possible.” (Margaret McMillan, 1919) Unfortunately, Rachel died three years after the opening of the nursery, so Margaret renamed it the Rachel McMillan Nursery School in her sister’s memory.
A similar type of establishment was set up in northern Italy during the aftermath of the Second World War. Named after the village in which it was founded, the Reggio Emilia Approach allowed pre-school children to learn through play, which in turn helped them come to terms with the war they were born into. The Reggio Emilia Approach has since spread to other countries, however, their principles remain the same:
- Children must have some say over what they learn; additionally, the senses play a big role in the learning process.
- Children must be able to touch, move, listen, see and hear in order to fully process something.
- Children are encouraged to interact with other children and explore the world through material items and relationships.
- Children should be encouraged to always express themselves and be given infinite means and opportunities to do so.
By the early 20th century, a connection had been drawn between children’s emotional health and play. Children had been left orphaned or traumatised by the First World War and had no way of processing their feelings. British pioneer of child psychology, Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973), began to study child behaviour, eventually setting up the Children’s Clinic for the Treatment and Study of Nervous and Difficult Children in Notting Hill, London in 1928, later the Institute for Child Psychology (ICP). By studying how children play, Lowenfeld developed the Lowenfeld World Technique, a type of therapy that allowed children to express themselves through play rather than words.
For her research, Lowenfeld conducted individual sessions with children during which she would record how they played. An example displayed in the Play Well exhibition was a world a troubled child created with farmyard figurines. The child was prone to outbursts and violence when he first met Lowenfeld, however, processing his thoughts by creating imaginary scenes helped him work through his feelings and gradually become more sociable.
Lowenfeld was not the only psychiatrist to notice the connection between play and emotional wellbeing. Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971) trained as a child psychoanalyst during the 1920s and served as consultant paediatrician to the children’s evacuation programme during the Second World War. During this time he observed that mothers had the greatest impact on their child’s development. Anti-social behaviour developed when a child had not experienced the “mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding…”
Winnicott also observed that play was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He noted that play did not necessarily need to involve the use of toys or objects but could be similar to the ways adults “play” by making art, participating in sports, telling jokes, having hobbies and so forth. From this observation, Winnicott developed the “squiggle game”.
The squiggle game was a “game with no rules” which involved both Winnicott and the child’s participation. First, Winnicott drew a shape on a piece of paper, then the child would add to the “squiggle” to turn it into a drawing. Winnicott would also allow the child to make the first squiggle, which he would then finish off. After this, doctor and patient would talk about the drawings, creating stories that would often reveal insights into the child’s life.
Due to the research by Winnicott, Lowenfeld, Fröbel and other psychoanalysts, play was declared a basic human need in 1989 by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nations have since been obliged to provide spaces for children to play and many schools, nurseries and kindergartens use play-based learning. To make sure children of low-income countries, often those affected by war, could access safe areas to play, the Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) committee established Play Labs, designed to ensure that vulnerable children aged 2–6 years were provided with a safe place for healing through play.
Now partnered with Lego, BRAC Play Labs have been established in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda. Over 7000 children have been given the opportunity to play and to learn, including those in refugee camps. Whilst these labs are only for younger children, research suggests the experience they have will impact on their whole development.
After looking at the psychology of play, the Wellcome Collection went on to explore what play looked like in wider society. The simplest form of play is imaginative role-play, which allows children to assume different identities. This can be acted out by a child on his or her own, or within a group, often in the school playground. Other playground games involve chanting or singing, using lyrics that date back several decades. Familiar songs include Oranges and Lemons and A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea.
Throughout time, children have played with inanimate objects, for instance, sticks. As shown in the picture book Not A Stick by Antoinette Portis, a stick can easily become a horse, a sword or a dragon when given a little imagination.
Of course, for the past few centuries, companies have been producing items specifically for play, such as teddy bears, dolls and toy cars. Over time, however, these have become associated with particular brands and stereotypes. Lego, for instance, which probably stems from Fröbel’s gifts, was initially suitable for both boys and girls. In more recent years, however, Lego attempted to make sets specifically for boys or specifically for girls.
Lego is not the only franchise that is guilty of this. Toys like Barbie and Action Men are targetted at specific genders. In 1993, activist Igor Vamos tried to emphasise how ridiculous or even dangerous teaching children to believe these stereotypes could be by founding the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO). Allegedly BLO infiltrated Toys R Us and switched the voice boxes of 300 Barbies and GI Joe dolls, making GI Joe say things like “My desk is a mess,” and Barbie, “Vengeance is mine.”
Specific franchises have even taken away the need to be imaginative. Toys based on films, for example, encourage children to act out scenes they have seen on the screen rather than create their own. With companies competing with each other for sales, these types of toys are eradicating the more traditional dolls and toys of by-gone years.
Researchers have begun to suggest toys, such as Barbie dolls, can lower a child’s self-esteem. A Barbie doll is not a realistic representation of a human, nor is a heavily muscled Action Man. Since these dolls have become iconic, it is not easy to change their appearance. Instead, campaigners are now focusing on the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the toy market.
In 2015, journalist Rebecca Atkinson founded #ToyLikeMe, a creative collective that called on global toy industries to start positively representing disabilities. Since then, franchises have begun producing toys that would resonate with over 150 million disabled children. Barbie and Playmobil are just two of the companies involved. Today, children can play with Barbies with prosthetic limbs, figures in wheelchairs, a diabetic Incredible Hulk toy, a monkey with hearing aids and dolls that are blind, bald or suffering from conditions such as vitiligo.
Children’s behaviour and ways in which they play remains a topic amongst researchers today. Despite the increase in gender-specific and franchise-specific toys, psychoanalysts still believe children need the opportunity to challenge themselves physically, emotionally and mentally through play. London based artist Eva Rothschild (b.1971) set up an experiment that allowed eleven boys between the ages of 6 and 11 to explore an art exhibition in which normal gallery rules were forgotten.
Rothschild installed replicas of her contemporary sculptures at Chisenhale Gallery, East London and instructed the boys to enter the room and look with their eyes for a long as possible, after which they could touch the exhibits. A video of the experiment is shown as part of the Play Well exhibition. Initially, the boys were cautious, refraining from touching anything for many minutes. After some time had passed, some of the boys got restless and began egging each other on to be the first person to touch something; as soon as one person had, they all began to touch. Once again, they were fairly gentle but as soon as one sculpture collapsed, the boys became more violent and, soon, nothing was left standing.
Unfortunately, there are a limited amount of opportunities for children to act as freely as the boys in Rothschild’s video. Societal rules, health and safety concerns and fears have hindered children’s freedom to play.
“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.”
– Marjory Allen
In postwar Britain, it was not uncommon to find children playing on the streets. Many children, left unsupervised by busy parents, found themselves exploring bombsites, turning them into unconventional playgrounds. Photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) documented the street culture in working-class areas of Greater Manchester between the 1960s and 80s, revealing that children were still playing outside on the pavements, unconcerned about the dangers of strangers or vehicles.
Adults, however, were becoming increasingly aware of the risks children faced on the street but did not want to prohibit the freedom to play. As the cities and towns became more urbanised, children were limited as to where they could play, so a playground movement was organised to create specific areas for children. This mission is still important today and is the reason the majority of public parks have an adventure playground containing swings, slides and climbing frames.
Unfortunately, today’s playgrounds are under threat due to limited funding. There is very little money for maintenance and repairs, and many parks are being sold off to building contractors. Contemporary photographer and activist Mark Neville travelled around London parks, taking photos for his book Child’s Play. Although the book was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, it is entirely relevant to the Play Well exhibition. The book and photographs focus attention on how conditions for children can be improved and the real and imagined barriers to play in cities.
Neville’s book warns of a “shrinking childhood” and its connection to the rise of mental health problems in younger generations. Not many children are given the freedom to go outside alone, unlike their parents who may have grown up playing on the streets. Grandparents may have been walking over a mile to school without a parent from a very young age and great-grandparents were allowed to wander even further.
Do the risks of playing outside outweigh the risks of a child’s mental health? Children who have not had the freedom to explore are more likely to fear the outside world and become anxious when leaving the safety of their home and parents. Whilst it is not safe to play on pavements due to the increase in road traffic, Neville and other activists are advocating for a national strategy for play and an increase in funding for adventure playgrounds.
In the 21st century, physical play is rapidly being replaced by digital play. Unable to play outside when they desire, children are finding ways to have fun and socialise online or through video games. Ironically, the people who restricted children’s freedom of physical play are concerned about the effects of digital play. In 2018, gaming addiction was listed as a disease by the World Health Organisation, however, this has not stopped families, schools and children from adopting digital technology.
To end the exhibition, a set of digital screens allow visitors to play games designed by 14-19-year-olds. RawMinds, a project that takes place twice a year at the Wellcome Collection, invited a group of teenagers – “digital natives” – to create games based on their experiences. They were encouraged to consider both the positive and negative aspects of gaming, resulting in games that help to forge friendships, tackle anxieties about the world and limit addiction. One game required two players to work together rather than against each other; neither player could complete the game without the assistance of the other. Another game explored the concept of visiting a shopping centre as a socially anxious child. Children suffering from anxiety would recognise themselves in the game’s characters and other children would learn to understand the minds of their peers.
Open to all ages, Play Well is an eye-opening exhibition that draws attention to the importance of play. The psychology of play is something that is not often addressed or even thought about and it is interesting to discover the theories about childhood development. Having learnt about Fröbel, the McMillan sisters, Lowenfeld and Winnicott’s theories, it is worrying how little opportunity children have to learn through play today. Yet, it is reassuring to discover the effectiveness of a few wooden blocks and the opportunity to express emotion.
Play Well is a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and will remain open until 13th April 2020. The galleries are open every day except Mondays.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!