I’m lucky that my experience in schools, with scouts and with summer camps has given me plenty of opportunity to see opportunities of brilliant play opportunities in action.
I have never been more impressed than what I’ve witnessed on Superweeks run by The Active Training and Education Trust (The ATE Trust). On a Superweek, play is a thread which runs throughout the entire week. Children are grouped into teams who spend the whole week together. They are then given their own play facilitator – a monitor. This young adult is very much part of this team and has an expert eye that is always open for opportunities to encourage their group to play- whether that be with a game they have suggested or whether they have created an opportunity for something less structured. When walking in the woods, this monitor will know when to give their group a direct focus such as a scavenger hunt but will also know that time choosing to build a den is crucial to their experience of the week too. Superweek staff are also the experts in making something when doing ‘nothing’. A sit down and a rest becomes spotting interesting looking clouds; it becomes a moment of holding buttercups under each other’s chins; it becomes learning what a buttercup is.
In contrast to other organisations, at no point are children on Superweeks asked “Who wants to play this game?”. Instead, activities develop organically and children are guided through a number of opportunities to play and to enjoy. As a child I know that I’d already decided what I was, and was not, good at. This sort of thinking affects the choices we make as children and adults. If somebody appears and says “Who wants to come and play this game out on the field?”, I know for sure that those who say no have decided ‘I’m not good at outdoor games…I’m never very good at PE in school’ or they’ve decided ‘I don’t know this game and I don’t want to look silly’ or they’ve decided ‘everyone here looks like they’d be better at this than me so I don’t want to let them all down’. Superweeks foster an approach that allows and encourages everyone to participate. There’s no opt-out culture, there’s no expectation that anybody is the best or that we’re focused on a winner. The objective is the enjoyment, the smiles, the moment of pure joy and uncontrollable laughter.
So what do we mean when we talk about ‘play’? Play is being able to enjoy an activity without focusing on the end result. Despite the belief that for many children their primary focus is play, we would argue that what many think of as play simply isn’t. Play involves exploring an activity, or the world around you, for yourself. Play is deciding to try something and working through it, whether it goes wrong at first or not. Play is about an uninhibited sense of fun. To quote Mark Twain in ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Increasingly, children are being directed in almost every activity they undertake. Even when given ‘free time’, or ‘playtime’, or participating in clubs and other extra curricular activities, children are taking their direction from adults; looking to adults to provide structure, set the rules, give them an objective and resolve conflicts. Making a habit of providing structure at every opportunity has de-skilled our children and taken away their natural inclination to explore the world themselves; to make believe; to become absorbed in something that interests them; to fill a ‘spare’ afternoon themselves.
We want our children to be successful so let’s make sure we maximise their learning opportunities. Significantly, that’s our big problem. Just because play can be defined as what we’re not obliged to do, it doesn’t mean it’s not learning. American Television personality, Fred Rogers summed this up brilliantly, stating, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
Playing allows us to encounter new ideas and situations, and through these experiences we discover, make mistakes and learn. These experiences help us to build our understanding of the world and give us an increased sense of confidence to tackle new situations. When we learn to navigate our way through unfamiliar situations in a safe environment, we are developing our risk management skills and learning how to take future risks safely. This doesn’t just refer to physical risks; play with others helps us learn how to deal with conflict and how to approach conflict resolution. A generation of children who need a teacher or parent to solve their issues with other children are not developing the social and emotional resilience they will need as they grow up.
In addition to this, in our increasingly technology focused world, play allows us to connect with what is actually around us. children need opportunities to connect with nature and to observe, enjoy and value what is around them.
If play is the opportunity to experience something for the joy of doing it, Superweeks are nothing if not serious play. Through outdoor games, indoor games, drama, storytelling, connecting with nature, time spent ‘doing nothing’, arts and crafts, children are given the chance to navigate experiences they have never been given the opportunity to try, and have avoided in the past. Their adventures on a Superweek give children a taste of real childhood; the chance to be carefree; to be unshackled from who they feel they have to be at school or at home; to be valued for who they are as a person and to know that they can try things out and make mistakes but it’s ok because everyone is in it together.
A life without real opportunities to play will not give our children the childhood they deserve, or the skills they will need as they grow up. Superweeks take play seriously; the dens built, the songs sung, the games played, the giggling, the smiling faces and the friendships built are all evidence of that.