Play is often (and rightly) thought of as a central means by which children develop and socialise into a culture. Less often is discussed how play—as something communities may cherish or cater for—may itself be a force generative of culture. In situations of crisis like the one we are living with the COVID-19 Pandemic, play becomes more visible as such transformational force. By having to re-arrange organisationally and conceptually how to care for children and provide them with healthy opportunities for playing, society finds new ways of dealing with issues beyond play, including the organisation of work and of how we adults relate to each other.
The idea that play is an integral aspect of a person’s development has not escaped scholars, policy-makers, and lay persons alike. National and international pedagogical and paediatric associations emphasise the importance of providing safe and adequate opportunities for play to ensure children’s healthy development and to “buffer toxic stress, build parental relationships and improve executive functioning,” as an APP clinical report states. Play is in fact recognised as a legitimate right of childhood, and anyone who has dealt with children for any daily practical matter knows that, without play, there is little chance you will get things done at all. Whether it is about getting a child helping putting the toys away, cleaning after, or getting dress up, infusing situations with play is the only way to go. For has the power of transforming situations into manageable situations for children.
There is something else everyone is aware of when it comes to play: playing alone is not as fun. In fact, all of the above remarks on the importance of play emphasise the relational aspect, the engagement of others around the child: whether this is through providing a “safe” time and space for play, or more directly by engaging in play ourselves. In fact, from the sociocultural, Vygotskian perspectives familiar to many reading this forum, it is not just that social relations are important for play but that play is all about them. According to these perspectives, what children achieve in play is nothing less than the possibility of operating with cultural meanings—the social and cultural, semantic field of activity in which things can be treated according to social conventions and norms. Engaged in creating imaginary situations, children develop the competence of treating things as if they were other things, not actually present. This is the seed of being able of emancipating oneself from situational constraints through abstract thinking; imagination!
And, in play, this capacity of creating imaginary situations goes hand by hand with the capacity of (fluidly) establishing and following social norms, rules about what it counts as play, and what is no longer playing. Are we playing sisters? Then you have to act as if we were sisters, not just the way you like. Play is as much about being freed from obligations and rutines as it is about constantly negotiating and coming up with reasons for doing what you are doing with others (or on your own) in a given play situation. It is as much about having fun as it is about developing ways of being and of understanding the cultural meanings embedded in cultural contexts. For how we set rules in play—whether we are playing sisters, parents, or doctors—is permeable to the cultural ways of dealing with sisters, parents, and doctors that are available around us.
Given this social nature and significance of play, what consequences does the current situation have, where daycare, kindergarten, and schools are closed and quarantine and isolation measures to stop COVID-19 Pandemic are becoming the norm across the globe? When children are forced to stay indoors, no longer are allowed to go to public parks or meet with neighbours, family and friends, how are we to provide for that need and legitimate right of play? …
A very tragic, heart-breaking example of how play can turn crisis situations into manageable situations through the use of imagination and norms has been widely distributed through social media, as a Syrian parent and daughter recorded themselves playing laughing every time a bomb would fall nearby.
Nilsson, M. & Ferholt, B. (2014). Vygotsky’s theories of play, imagination and creativity in current practice: Gunilla Lindqvist’s ‘creative pedagogy of play’ in U.S. kindergartens and Swedish Reggio-Emilia inspired preschools. PERSPECTIVA, Florianópolis, 32(3), 919–950.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1966). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Voprosy psikhologii, 12(6), 62–76.