Play or playful?

Wicker basket filled with soft toys and a book

I’m a strong supporter of play and playful experiences in any and all settings. When undertaking my vocational play worker qualification I used my museum experiences of family programming, Forest School and our heritage holiday club as evidence for children’s development and learning through play. In the decade (and more) since then there have been papers and text books written about play in museums – for which I am very grateful for.

“Play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child.”

Davy & Gallagher, New Playwork, 2006

There are many forms of play out there and the scholars will argue amongst themselves the true definition. The types of play that may be of it’s most important to my work can probably classed as playful or play-based learning and guided play.

A few years ago I came across the Regio Emilia Approach and it peaked my interest as there are many similarities with heritage education and how the environment and ability to discover and explore are key.

A summary of the Reggio Emilia Approach by Sprout Schools

“In play it is as though [the child] were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, PLAY contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.”

Lev Vygotsky

Taking a playful approach

My first foray into playful interpretation was at Chiltern Open Air Museum. I’d inherited an amazing learning and event programme where I got to work in a large number of historic buildings (including cooking over an open fire in an 18th century cottage), work with living historians, reenactors and volunteers and there was a dressing up area for the children with traditional games to play.

At the time, the one place I always thought was a waste was the empty back bedroom of the 1940s prefab. We tried display boards, we tried display cases, it was just (dare I say it?) boring. So, with our team of young volunteers, I transformed it into a bedroom.

One of our (older) volunteers donated his childhood bed, my uncle donated his childhood horsehair mattress and we used a combination of replica and original toys. So what made this special and different from all the other period rooms at that museum? Well it was the first one where there wasn’t a chain across the doorway and that visitors were actively encouraged to go in, touch, try on and play.

What did I learn?

A playful approach to museums can have a brilliantly amazing impact on visitor enjoyment and engagement with our collections and stories. It’s something I’ve recently done at Belton House, creating a simple playful environment as part of the Percy the Park Keeper programming this year.

Guided play takes two forms

One of my favourite forms of play in heritage learning is guided play, which takes two principles:

  • Providing objects or experiences that enrich the environment and promote aspects of the curriculum/collections/site/heritage. In Reggio Emilia terms this is the third teacher.
  • Scaffolding the play experience by adults becoming a co-player who asks thoughtful questions, comments on discoveries or encourages further exploration.

Do remember that play is child-led, once you provide instruction on how to use an object or equipment provided it changes from play into an activity.

My top tips for playful experiences

Blankets, books and knitted mushroom rattles provide a soft, safe space for babies and toddlers to explore.

  1. Identify a safe space for play.

This is the children’s space, it has some stuff in it and they can use it, or not, in imaginative ways.

It also needs to be large enough for exploration and physical movement – how many children might be using the space at any one time?

2. Choose objects and equipment with a high play value.

Can they be used in multiple ways? Imagination is your only limit!

Tables with different activities provided, on the left miniature world play with loose parts and on the right different puzzles.

3. Play is child-led.

Don’t worry if the space and ‘stuff’ isn’t used as you planned it because they probably won’t – that’s fine as the children are playing and learning (of course if there is a danger to safety you would step in).

4. Have a team member available that the children can invite into their play – and remember to observe the playful nature of the space.

A wheelbarrow full of Percy the Park Keeper’s friends and info sheets – the friends join in the miniature world, climb shelves, hide in plant pots … the wheelbarrow travels as it’s wheeled around the space.

Final thoughts

I remember creating a trail around the house a few years ago and I put out a wig and asked if visitors could “strike the pose” of one of our flashiest portrait subjects. A few weeks in and I was chatting to a volunteer who told me that they had to keep telling adults that it was for the children to do. So remember play or playful, whatever we call it, isn’t just for the children – everyone can have fun!

“Playful (adjective) is done as a form of play rather than intended seriously, or wanting to have a good time and not feeling serious”

Cambridge Dictionary

(c) Melissa Kate Maynard

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: