Childhood Play as a Foundation for Flourishing

Image: My son and his best friend at forest school nursery when it re-opened in June 2020 – a brief return to the magic of childhood play.

Published on 29 March, 2021

Almost a year ago I wrote about the power of play during crisis. I encouraged us to re-engage with play during the pandemic as a catalyst to wellbeing and innovation. But I was speaking to adults, in a very rational way, about adult things.

Today I would like to share a personal story about the power of childhood play.

As a child I grew up in a chronically unsafe environment, and at the age of seven found myself primary caregiver to my three-year-old sister for six months. Although adults were physically present, they were not emotionally available. Instead, we immersed ourselves in a world of play. Whether building LEGO caravans or dress-ups in the treehouse, the themes that emerged through our play were always of courage and resilience in the face of adversity. In our play my sister and I spun imaginary worlds where we recreated the emotions we were feeling in real life – abandonment, threat, grief, loss, fear and uncertainty. We told the stories in play that we couldn’t name in reality. We also experimented with different choices – do we defend the castle from rising flood waters or flee to higher ground? – that supported our emotional resilience and real-life responses. 

Although the impact of this traumatic time is still part of my story, the freedom of childhood play instilled in me a sense of courage, resourcefulness, togetherness and optimism which continues today. 

In a career with many twists and turns, I now use structured play and stories to help adults build their own awareness and meaning-making. I am also the mother of a sensitive, curious five-year-old and watch him making sense of his emotions and ever-changing world through imaginary play. I care deeply about the role of childhood and about asking tough questions of our society’s assumptions of what really helps children live to their full potential. And over the past year I have seen the impact of the pandemic through the eyes of a young child.

As we now pass our first anniversary of the pandemic, attention is turning to questions of how to best support children moving forward. The Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza has launched a once-in-a-generation review of the future of childhood. Entitled the ‘Beveridge Report for Children’, after the economist who proposed widespread social welfare reforms following WWII, The Big Ask will seek the views of children in England on what life is like for them, their dreams and ambitions, and what is holding them back.

Inspired by this moment, I want to take the opportunity to share with you a number of valuable voices and the themes that emerge from their work on childhood play. 

  • With his TED talk surpassing 70 million, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson’s views on school and creativity are well known. Unsurprisingly he also values play as a route to learning and creativity. In his interview for the ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign he notes:

“Play is a highly beneficial and deeply natural way in which kids learn… Play has deeply important roles in the development of intellectual skills, in social skills, in developing empathy, in stretching our imaginations and exploring our creativity.”

  • Renown Canadian developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld’s life work has been helping adults provide conditions for children to flourish. He says:

“We’re beginning to understand that the primary purpose of play is to take care of our emotions… it’s huge. And it’s right at the core of emotional health and well-being.”

  • His colleague at the Neufeld Institute Dr Deborah MacNamara shared in a recent social media post:

“There is no greater task in raising children today than creating the conditions that will protect the space and time for true play. It means pushing back against a cultural tide that sees play as frivolous and unproductive instead of as the bedrock upon which our children realise their full human potential.”

She also highlights that neuroscience suggests children who play have more connected neural networks linked to creativity and problem solving, benefiting overall learning. She wraps it up with compelling summary:

“If innovation is important then play is the birthplace. If learning is important, then it happens in play when you aren’t even noticing. If emotional development is important then play takes care of this too by protecting vulnerable feelings from being too hurt. If personhood is important then I guarantee you that only play can foster this.”

  • During the UK’s first lockdown, a panel of leading child psychologists, psychiatrists and other experts in the UK shared their ‘Play First’ recommendations for supporting children’s social and emotional wellbeing during and after lockdown, with an emphasis on the highest quality social interaction and play. Well worth a read in full, several of the lead authors in the panel have also made statements – bear in mind this was only six weeks into lockdown:

Professor of Clinical Child Psychology Sam Cartwright-Hatton shares:

“All the research indicates that children’s emotional health is suffering in the lockdown and it seems likely that this suffering will, in many cases, continue into the long term. We are urging ministers and policymakers ensure that children are afforded substantial, and if possible enhanced, access to high quality play opportunities as soon as possible.”

Fellow lead author in the panel Dr Kathryn Lester draws attention to a recent peer-play deficit:

“Although many children may be spending more time playing during lockdown than usual, they may currently have a play deficit because the physical and social restrictions in place deprive them of the chance to play with their peers. We know that play with peers is critically important for children’s development. Play has substantial benefits for children’s emotional wellbeing especially during periods of anxiety and stress. It provides a sense of control, it helps children make sense of things they might be struggling to understand, and importantly it makes children happy.”

Third lead author Professor of Child Psychology Helen Dodd has written a number of articles on this, including an earlier collaboration with child-friendly urban design advocate Tim Gill. They highlight the power of child-led play with beautiful clarity:

“Free play can also help children make sense of things they find hard to understand”

  • In this Medium article, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) Play Therapist Laura Walsh and play professional Penny Wilson outline the essential role plays in children’s future lives: 

“Play is not only the defining characteristic of childhood, but it establishes the foundations of a future life. The ability and desire to be sociable and contribute to social cohesion, employability, good mental and physical health, emotional resilience, self-confidence, curiosity and the motivation to learn.


Freely chosen, self-directed play generates the enthusiasm to explore and learn about life, it is the foundation of understanding the world and our place in it. It is the first human language – coming before speech and formal, adult directed learning. This has been the case throughout the evolution of our species.”

They highlight that for children the play deprivation experienced over these past 12-18 months can have profound consequences unless compensated for as soon as possible:

“For a year – 18 months, which is a large proportion of the life of a child, almost all of our young citizens have been separated from their peers, unable to share freely chosen play. The effects of play deprivation are profound and last throughout a human life, unless the child is offered the chance to experience as soon and as frequently as possible the chance to compensate for this deficit. Our children need a real world experience after a year of living by proxy through screens. This is true in every demographic grouping. Child’s need for play is universal.”

The big questions.

“Children live in challenging times and so do we, there’s no question of it, the pressures are intense, they’re particularly intense from education… But in the middle of it there are some principles that hold good about the nature of childhood and what makes it a valuable one and an effective one.”

– Sir Ken Robinson

It’s clear that children – like all young mammals – are wired for play and it is key to our survival, adaption and wellbeing. In the voices above common themes have emerged:

  • Children learn best through play – especially self-directed, open-ended, peer and outdoor play.
  • Play is fundamental for emotional health and wellbeing – in the present moment and as a foundation for their adult lives.
  • It is in excluding play from children’s lives that we risk them being ‘left behind’.
  • The pandemic has exacerbated an existing play deprivation engrained in our society, and ongoing disparities in access to play across our communities are likely to contribute to further societal inequality.
  • Keeping opportunities for free play, outdoor play and peer play prioritised over the coming months and years can contribute to both strengthening child and young people’s mental wellbeing, as well as helping them develop the critical skills for the future.

If any good can come out of the loss and trauma of this pandemic, perhaps it is valuable opportunities like this to stop and recalibrate what is important to us, our children and future generations. We can ask ourselves:

What makes life meaningful?
What does a good childhood look and feel like?
And what do children really need in order to live in their full potential?

Having found the big questions which are most alive in us, the lens of Poetic Activism provides a powerful way to move forward by asking ourselves, “What is a meaningful way to live, act and do things in the face of these big questions?” Each of us can find the shape and form of an activism that grows organically out of the contours of our own lives. Though for those in England with children or working with children, I also encourage you to engage in The Big Ask survey and help children to know their voices matter.


My dyslexic scepticism flares when acronyms like VUCA are used, but I sense we’re in unfamiliar terrain and clutching tightly to out of date maps. However, as Sir Ken reminds us, there are some principles that hold good and I’m certain that play is one of them. After the losses of the pandemic, we should not allow this precious opportunity for reflection and recalibration go to waste. Let’s do all we can to be good ancestors; to ensure all children – our children – can move forward into the emerging future with their own sense of courage, resourcefulness, togetherness and optimism.

Notes and Acknowledgements 
  • Further details of the ‘Beverage Report for children’, launched by the Children’s Commissioner for England in March 2021, can be found here.
  • Sir Ken Robinson’s quotes were taken the 2016 ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign, accessed from Tim Gill’s website ‘Rethinking Childhood‘.
  • Dr Gordon Neufeld spoke about the future of education (and play and emotion) on New Future Podcast with Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie and Kate Razzivina in June 2020.
  • Dr Deborah MacNamara’s quotes were taken from her Instagram post in March 2021. I also highly recommend this article on her website for a more in-depth explanation of play and emotions.
  • The widely endorsed, collaborative panel report entitled ‘Play First: Supporting Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing During and After Lockdown‘ was published in May 2020, just six weeks into the UK’s first lockdown. Professor Sam Cartwright-Hatton and Dr Katheryn Lester’s quotes came from the University of Sussex press release.
  • Professor Helen Dodd and Tim Gill’s also published an article during this time for The Conversation entitled ‘Coronavirus: Just letting children play will help them, and their parents, cope‘.
  • I have written this as my own #PoeticActivism response after reading Laura Walsh and Penny Wilson’s March 2021 Medium article, ‘A Compelling Request‘.
  • Finally, my ongoing appreciation to Dr Margaret Gearty for her February 2020 New Histories blog which introduced me to Poetic Activism.