On Play: Children’s Voices Matter

My recent research interests, while still as varied as always, have shifted to including a focus on play.

For most of us, defining play and then talking about it in any number of contexts, seems relatively straightforward. Recently, I have found that what I am learning about play is that even defining it is anything but straightforward.


One obstacle I have encountered is that play, as defined by children, or from the perspective of childhood, is limited. In other words, there are all kinds of adult experts on play, but in too many instances, their research lacks the critical component, of children’s voices. Observing children at play is one thing, but having children define it, is another thing altogether.

As an historian of childhood, the discounting of young people’s voices is a theme as old as the historiography. In this respect, it has deep ties to the social history that emerged in the late sixties and early seventies. Debate about the veracity, reliability and just plain usefulness of children as sources of knowledge is age old.

This is particularly problematic when it comes to play. A major trend since the early 20th Century in North America has been the increase in organized, managed and directed play. Children’s free play continues to be eroded as adults have wanted to imbue purpose, meaning and goals (almost always exclusively adult-driven) into children’s activities. One of the most important points that has been missed in all of this is that all children need and desire self-directed free play.

Are there times when it should be guided? Absolutely. Does children’s play, at times, benefit from adult intervention? Of course. But when are most, if not all children the most content and happy? When they are playing on their own in a small group of peers.

How do I know this? Well, much of the research supports this, even when it lacks the perspective of children themselves. Yet too many adults, and especially parents, continue to ignore what many of us know to be so.

Some of my future research will look at recovering play histories both from children themselves and from the perspective of childhood, from older people. There is so very much to learn here – for children and for the child in all of us.

In an upcoming post I will explore what free play looks like and why it is so important.