How would you feel if you couldn’t play?

Hayley Gains visits the new exhibition from the Wellcome Collection.

When you walk into the Play Well exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection, you will hear children’s answer to this question. ‘Bored’, ‘sad’, ‘I’d just watch TV’, ‘It would be unfair’… another child would be ‘a little bit angry’. With this in mind, you are invited to take a journey from the declaration of play as a basic human need (UN convention on the rights of the child, 1989), to the picture of play in our current urban and digital environments.

A big part of this journey is looking at the emergence of playful pedagogies. On display are beautiful examples of teacher training albums from the early 1800s. The albums are carefully crafted and guided by the principles of Friedrich Fröbel. Fröbel was a German educator who established the Kindergarten system and developed a series of play materials known as Fröbel’s gifts. Framed within the nature vs nurture debate, the display shows us that creativity and imagination can be nurtured when teachers are provided with the right tools.

The exhibition also highlights that play is a powerful force in environments that are clouded by conflict. For example, in the 1940s war torn region of Reggio Emilia, citizens built a play-based school and developed a pedagogy that is widely followed and highly regarded today. In 2019, there are 800 BRAC Play Labs operating in conflict areas, such as Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda. Colourful photography brings this to life in the exhibition, and shows us how play can be used to build resilience, support recovery from physical injury, and be a joyful approach to emotional healing from trauma.

A particularly touching video in the exhibition, closer to home, comes from project Wild Thing. A young boy from central London shows us a patch of grass by the road, where he takes his dog to play. The patch of grass is tiny, and you can see the shock on the presenters’ face that this is where he comes to play. In the centre of his block, the presenter asks, ‘why don’t you play here?’, and the boy explains that he will get an ASBO (antisocial behaviour order) if he plays ball games there.

Something that is evident throughout the exhibition is that societal values (and periodic shifts in these values) are reflected in the time and space we give to play and the toys that we produce. In early LEGO advertisements, you can see boys and girls being equally rewarded for their ingenuity. Conversely the Barbie Liberation Dolls lead an impassioned crusade against the deeply gender stereotyped utterances of Barbie and Ken. A recent campaign, ToyLikeMe, is making further calls for the toy industry to reflect values of diversity and inclusivity, by producing toys with disabilities and realistic, healthy body proportions.

If any more evidence is needed for the importance of play, the exhibition informs visitors of world leading research being carried out by academics at the University of Cambridge and University College London. Project HOPSCOTCH (Hi-tech Observation of Play and Social Communication Trajectories in Children) used tracking devices to show that the introduction of simple play materials increased the social interactions of children and tended to make groups more diverse and inclusive.

The Play Well exhibition reminds us to be grateful for play. When nurtured, children and adults alike learn to communicate, express emotions, use imagination and experience joy. Despite the natural propensity to play, we must not forget the need to dedicate time, space and thoughtfulness to this powerful expression of self.

Reviewed by Hayley Gains, a postgraduate student at the University of Exeter, and one of our Voices In Psychology programme winners.

‘Play Well’ is on until 20 March 2020. Admission is free.

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