What does it mean to 'play well'?

October sees the opening of a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

Why do we play? How important is it for all of us, young or old? What does it mean to play well?

'Play Well' will explore the transformative power of play in childhood and in society at large. Through toys, games, artworks and design from the mid-1800s to now, the exhibition will investigate how we played as children and how children play now, as well as its importance in developing social bonds, emotional resilience and physical wellbeing. It will examine the relevance of play in the adult world and its vital role in fostering imagination, enabling independent thought and challenging the status quo. 

The first section, Nature/ Nurture, examines the importance of play in child development and education, and how it can be employed in therapeutic work. It explores the innate drive of the young to play, featuring examples of both animal and human play. The beliefs of early educational reformers are considered, including the work of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and Kindergarten founder Friedrich Froebel, both of whom set play at the centre of childhood experience and argued on behalf of the child’s right to play. The long-lasting influence of 20th century educational theorists will also feature, with figures such as Margaret McMillan in London and Loris Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy, who advocated for learning through play.

The role of play and its therapeutic importance in uncovering trauma will be considered with material from pioneers in the field Margaret Lowenfeld and D.W Winnicott, whose archives are held at Wellcome Collection. Play can also serve as a retreat from conflict, as demonstrated by the Play Labs set up in Rohingya refugee camps by the Bangladesh-based humanitarian organisation BRAC, which offer children a safe space to play. Meanwhile photographer Mark Neville’s series shows children playing in the immediate aftermath of shelling in the Ukraine, fostering a sense of emotional security in these challenging situations.

The second section, Toys Like Us, will focus on society and how children’s play reflects, alters and adapts to the world around them. It explores the influence of contemporary culture on playground play, from clapping games, dances, children handwritten notes to the dances developed through the online videogame Fortnite.

The transformative potential of the imagination on basic playthings like sticks and blocks is highlighted, alongside the shift towards increasingly commercialised toys. It will chart the evolution of LEGO® products (the LEGO name coming from the Danish words leg godt, whose meaning is "play well”) from its simple origins to the more complex and franchised sets on sale today. This section also explores the power of toys to challenge stereotypes and change attitudes. Toys Like Me, a creative collaborative set up to represent a range of differently-abled bodies in toys, has influenced mainstream manufacturers to represent diverse bodies in a playful and positive way.

Finally, Rules and Risk, examines the ways in which play is controlled, limited or supervised. It investigates the effect of an increasingly risk-averse society as play has shifted from the street to the playground and increasingly inside. The freedom of unsupervised outdoor play from a bygone era is captured through iconic post war British street photography by Bert Hardy, Nigel Henderson and Shirley Baker and paintings by Joan Eardley, demonstrating children’s evident sense of ownership of the street. Pioneering playground designs by Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck situated play within the fabric of cities, while in the UK the adventure playground movement led by Marjorie Allen aimed to ensure risk and exposure to nature were preserved. 

Meanwhile fears for safety and the rise of the digital play space have led to a curtailing of freedom for today’s children. Technology offers parents an unprecedented level of surveillance, while video gaming presents its own set of opportunities and risks. In the exhibition a group of young people, part of Wellcome Collection’s Raw Minds programme, aged 14-19, respond to this question in a series of games, designed by them with the support of Wellcome Collection, exploring loneliness, anxiety, commerce and teamwork in the digital sphere.

Accompanying the exhibition is a commission by artist Adam James, who examines the role of play in the adult world and its potential to promote empathy between people. James works in Live Action Role Play (LARP), a form of role-playing game where the participants create a collaborative fiction and then physically act out their characters' actions. James will create a play space in the centre of the gallery where visitors can take part in either independent play, facilitated gallery games or more in depth LARPS, which will form part of Wellcome Collection’s live programme.

PLAY WELL will be accompanied by Michael Rosen’s Book of Play, published by Profile Books, and runs at Wellcome Collection from 24 October 2019 – 8 March 2020. It is curated by Shamita Sharmacharja. 

Image: Mark Neville, Kristina in Luganke, Eastern Ukraine series, 2017

- Do you research or practice in the psychology of play? We're always keen to hear about potential submissions… get in touch on [email protected]

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