Free Play for All Ages

Playwork involves working with children and young people aged 5 – 15 years in a diversity of informal play settings. This can include school-based play centres, park rangers in parks and urban housing estates, holiday playschemes and adventure playgrounds. Playworkers seek to provide play environments and opportunities for children and young people and to advocate for more play provision.

The playwork principle

The playwork principles (2006) state,

“All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well being of individuals and communities.

“Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. That is children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way, for their own reasons.

“Playworkers choose an intervention style that enables children and young people to extend their play. All playworker intervention must balance risk with the developmental benefit and well-being of children.”

In a nutshell, the child chooses, freely when and how to play, and this is seen as a biological drive, essential to health and well-being. The implication for the role of the playworker is that s/he must be high on response and low on intervention.

Early Years Foundation Stage

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (to be introduced in Sept 2008), seeks to lay a secure foundation for the future of learning – “one in which children are stretched, but not pushed beyond their capabilities, so that they can continue to enjoy learning” There are six learning goals :

– personal and emotional development,

– communication,

– language and literacy,

– problem-solving reasoning and numeracy,

– knowledge and understanding of the world, and

– physical and creative development.

All these areas must be delivered through planned purposeful play, with a balance of adult-led and child-initiated activities.” Elsewhere it is suggested that “ongoing observational assessment [should] inform planning for each child’s continuing development through play-based activities.”

Free play – vital for development and therapy

Playworkers would argue that purposeless, child-initiated play – free from adult orchestration, inevitably has significant developmental outcomes.

Bob Hughes (2006), a playworker and play theorist, has identified sixteen play types, including creative, dramatic, exploratory, fantasy, locomotor, mastery, object , role, rough and tumble, social, socio-dramatic, symbolic, deep (extremely risky) and recapitulative (ritual) play. Their very description indicates a relevance to the social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional development and outcomes of the Foundation Stage.

It is of concern to many playworkers that the encroachment of a target-driven educational discourse on the early years will impair the child’s capacity to play – and in effect might have results, quite the opposite of those intended.

This certainly seems supported by a reading of the works of D.W. Winnicott (1992) on playing. Britain’s first child psychiatrist and renowned psychoanalytic theorist, he sees playing as a developmental achievement, as well as a form of therapy and healing. Once the child can play s/he has the capacity to resolve emotional difficulties through playing.

For Winnicott, the first playground lies between the mother and the baby, and playing is initiated by the spontaneous gesture of the child, responded to by the mother. Layer upon layer, interaction upon interaction, she gradually and sensitively introduces her own playing. Through this way of relating inner and outer worlds, in a transitional space created by and resting between the mother and the baby, the child develops the capacity for relating within the family, nursery, school, community and the outside world.

Winnicott’s most famous contribution is his “discovery” of the transitional object – the famous teddy bear, comfort blanket, or whatever the child chooses. At one and the same time it is the mother – a representation of her – and an actual object e.g.. a bear! The transitional object withstands attack; it is respected as special; it is never challenged (who would dream of calling the comfort blanket a dirty rag or not search for it when lost?) and – when the child is ready – it is eventually given up.

Here we have supported free play where the child’s initiative, as an expression from within and communication in the outside world, is paramount.

This capacity to symbolise, for one thing to stand in the place of another – as a word does for an object, must surely, form the basis of conceptual tasks such as reading, literacy, numeracy, knowledge and understanding, and personal creativity? Such playing is crucial for development, and cannot be taught or imposed by a well-meaning adult. It has to be provided for through a holding, rather than prescribing, environment.

Both the writings of Winnicott and the research and beliefs underpinning playwork stress the importance of free playing. One that is freely chosen – between play types – rather than play activities, in an environment that facilitates play and is populated by adults who want to respond in kind, – to the play gesture of the child – rather than impose by developmental decree or reference to attainment targets.

Is play at risk?

Playing in the earliest years is crucial to health and maturation. Playing is a developmental achievement, maturational process and form of self healing.

It is fundamental to the capacity to learn and enjoy education. The innate play drives of babies and young children must not be overlooked in the drive for economic supremacy through education.

It would be a terrible thing if the children for whom the Children’s Plan (2007) seeks to provide new play spaces and adventure playgrounds have their opportunities to play eroded in their early years and they arrive there play-deprived.

I feel that it is a matter of deep concern and irony to be advocating the need for free play in the early years. When I first started working in playwork, the pre-school sector was a source of inspiration and admiration due to its recognition and provision for the unassailable rights of the child to play. It is crucial that there is free play throughout childhood; this is indeed the cornerstone of a foundation for life and for learning throughout it.

Chris Taylor is a Freelance Playwork Trainer and Consultant.


Children’s Plan (Dec 2007)’splan

Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (2008)

Hughes, B. (2006) Play Types, Speculations and Possibilities, London Centre for Playwork Education and Training

PlayWales Chwarae Cymru, Playwork Principles, 2006

Winnicott, D.W.(1992) Playing and Reality Routledge, London

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