Driving in the car, I’m going through my ‘To Do’ list and berating myself. I’m always behind where I want to be, feeling late and worried. I keep putting ‘creative writing time’ on my calendar, but day after day other things get crossed off first.

The Vulnerability of Play

When I try to sit and write after a long gap, it’s often hard and uncomfortable. I grip my pen and nothing happens. Doubting myself, I go outside and kick big lumps of dirt until I feel better. If play is supposed to be so good for us, I think, why is it also such a pain?

I miss seeing children. My stories are old and my practicing playwork self feels rusty to think about. I remember children arriving at a site for the first time, awestruck. I remember specific children weeks and minutes later, swaggering around in happiness. I remember how it feels to arrive on a good site, like landing in a world you could never have dreamed up alone. How I used to arrive early and drink my coffee on a rickety treehouse platform, looking out.

…but Why Play?

When Suzanna and I were talking about themes for this month, ‘why play’ seemed like an easy choice. It’s a reflective question that comes around every so often, both in justifying this work to others and checking in with ourselves. Why do we care so much about the importance of play, and is that the best response for right now?

Play is a necessity and a fundamental right for children. There are countless benefits which we could spend hours talking about: physical literacy, emotional eloquence, executive functioning skills, creativity, socialisation, therapy, environmental mastery and more. Despite these useful outcomes play is often sidelined, and play time is dished out as tiny “treats” as if it is frivolous. Sometimes it’s something we do only when we can fit it in.

For me, play is where we get beyond just getting by. Rather than thinking about play as synonymous with learning or opposite to work, I am interested in a generous definition of the term. Play can encompass all human emotion, maybe at the heart of culture and how we connect with others. More of a state of mind than specific activity, the importance of play is where people learn, grow, celebrate, dare and feel free. It feels like really living.

A Playworker’s Perspective

If the question is ‘why play’ then playwork is the response that tells you what to do next. Playworkers hold space for the joy and freedom of others. The work of this is widely misunderstood – the best interventions are like a magic trick. The lightest of touch on a moment, a graceful joining of threads, a lift in the arc. It’s very, very hard to do when your own needs (to be fed, to feel safe, to play) are unmet.

Playwork is about showing up for children (and others) in a very particular way. We try to bring our most compassionate, balanced, generous-hearted selves to every interaction. Playwork requires and builds a set of skills, just as play does. We practice witnessing children’s big emotions, supporting without judgment, and communicating possibilities of joy. Why play? Because listening to your own heart takes practice. Because growing stronger together isn’t easy. Because freedom is a muscle.

In times of heartache and strife, the importance of play becomes more essential to our collective survival, not less. It’s what brings us into connection with ourselves, each other, and the world. Play is how we heal through interaction, and therapeutic interplay. At its richest, play is a process driven by curiosity and joy, safely held by compassion. It’s also, and has always been, intensely political. Play is subversive, its celebration as survival, its resilience through joy and a new world dreamed and handmade into being.

Why care so much about play? Because it’s everything.

By Morgan Leichter-Saxby

This is the first in a series where we explore some of the most commonly asked questions that we are asked at Pop-Up Adventure Play. These “Blog Thoughts” work hand in hand with our “Video Thoughts” created as bite-sized versions of the main theme.