From education to employment

Daniel Wallis on How All Work and No Play”¦

“¦makes Jack a dull boy. Jack should, then, take this opportunity to pop down to Victoria Park in London and have a good play, because this is where the 18th annual Playday is being held, an event that sees a riot of bouncy castles, eggs and spoons, fairy cakes, face paints and candy-floss descend upon the park to form a kind of child’s play el dorado, only this time the rumours are true.

The mantra for this year’s event is “Play, Naturally”, which sounds infinitely more appealing than the stern, authoritarian “Play Carefully” that usually ruins any good time kids are having. By holding the event in a park, it is hoped that children who do not usually get a chance to do so will be able to have a good play amongst nature, the trees, the flowers and the grass, with a refreshing lack of deadly vehicles, wire fences and the generally depressing urban atmosphere that they may only be used to.

How to Grow Up”¦

Play is important. Even better, play is fun. In fact, play is so much fun that it is usually only rationed out to children in small portions, like a dangerous drug. Just when play is getting good, a strict adult voice pulls you away: playtime has ended, the joyfulness is over. Back instead to the miserable grey adult-friendly existence where play is frowned upon and children are chastised for being childish and acting like, well, children. “Oh, grow up,” the children are told, thereby plunging them into a spiral of self-loathing and guilt, understood that by playing, they have been doing something wrong and have “disappointed themselves”. But we were having so much fun”¦

Heard from the lips of a child, the word “fun” acts as a kind of expletive to the adult ear. The immediate response is along the lines of “No, we”re not going to do that,” or “You”d better behave” (usually followed by a mild threat of some kind). Within a school setting, “play” and “fun” are treated almost like political dissent in a totalitarian society. Play, outside of the allotted state-approved intervals, must be undertaken in a covert, secret way, a forbidden pleasure engaged in at the child’s peril, with the watchful eye of Teacher to look out for.

Some children actually buy all the anti-play propaganda, and act as a kind of secret police, denouncing classmates who have been found to be playing about in non-play time. For these children, nothing less than conformation with the adult ideal is desirable and play really is something immature to be looked down on; all work and no play for these kids, and a steady lifetime of accountancy and finance control awaits them.


There has always been a general unease about play. This extends to the widespread belief that if a child is clearly enjoying themselves, they are not learning, and the activity is somehow detrimental to their education. The glummer the child, the more educational the activity must be: “Aaah, good, nice and boring. Nice and educational.” It is this response that instills a kind of dread in children over the word “education”, an indication of hard, oppressive times ahead, free of any fun, that must be endured until it is possible to safely engage in play again. This association remains with the child at all levels of education, a kind of nausea that returns every time the thought of work, or study comes up; deep down, even every post-grad student just wants to run away and play.

It is only recently that play has been recognized as an important part of a child’s development, albeit reluctantly, and terms such as “learning through play” and “creative play” have been coined to appease the anti-play party and somehow convince them that is is indeed possible for children to have fun and learn at the same time. Children are far more likely to engage in learning if the process is enjoyable; in the same way that you instinctively draw away from pain a child tries naturally to avoid something it finds unnatural, such as being placed in a rigid atmosphere that frowns upon it following its instinct to play. Perhaps it is the pressure to get children educated up to standard that provokes anti-play feelings in teachers; there may be a fear that if a child spends its time playing, it isn”t learning, and will fail the inevitable tests and show the learning provider to be sub-standard; perhaps it is time for the government to set play targets as well as educational ones.

Thinking Independently

Play is good, play is fun, play is important. Play encourages children to think for themselves, to engage and cooperate with others, to overcome obstacles and tasks themselves using their own reasoning. Identities and personalities are tried out, roles and situations are imagined and evaluated. Most adults will be surprised to find out what children consider to be play. A typical adult idea of play is of some mindless and repetitive physical motion, such as jumping on a bouncy castle or chasing each other in a loud, puerile way. But the child’s definition is far more advanced than this.

Play, for a child, can be interpreted as any activity where they are placed in control of their own movements, thoughts and responses: setting a child a task and then standing over them barking orders and yelling put-downs is education; setting a task and then leaving the room to allow the child to work through it itself, or with other kids, actually qualifies as a form of play in the child’s mind. The assumption of responsibility and independence is welcomed by the child, but is denounced as an undesirable flaw, “unsupervised children”, by the adults in charge, and is quickly banished in favour of the usual totalitarian control method.

Play is also good for society. Traditions and cultures are kept alive in play; many of the traditional games for young children have their roots centuries in the past. Children’s play patterns in the Caribbean can be trace back to a combination of African and European roots dating back into antiquity. “Ring-a-Roses” dates back to the plague, and having survived nearly four hundred years it would be a shame to prevent it from lasting another four hundred.

Time, then, to think back to our own sun-filled memories and allow dull boy Jack another go on the swings.

Daniel Wallis

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