Looking back over the past, say, thirty years, future historians might think it distinctly queer that we have spent so much effort and time in promoting a view of play that is somewhat to the side of what we value, what we believe: that is, the non-instrumental value of play.
But who are ‘we’? ‘We’ are those who hold that play is its own justification, that it is an expression of, and initiation into an idea of freedom. That its outcome is itself. That it is a state of mind, a state of being.
It is that the player is sovereign in their own self-created world. Play may have instrumental value in the pursuit of extrinsic goals, but it may not; in any case there are plenty of other ways to achieve any amount of extrinsic goals that, really, play should not need to bother itself about that. Adherence to this way of thinking is beyond, or before, any evidence that might be adduced in its favour. Evidence here is redundant, this because for those holding the above as true and necessary, it is beyond refutation.
There is, surely, a logical flaw in the argument that we can only succeed in getting play valued on the basis that we keep secret precisely what animates us about it. Yes, I see that as a matter of short-term pragmaticism, packaging bits of notional evidence as to play’s instrumental utility can – once again in the short-term – catch the eye, and whet the appetite, of policymakers and funders, but experience suggests that this yields initiatives and programmes that share one characteristic: evanescence.
It needs to be admitted that a key motivation for highlighting the instrumental value of play – how it can, apparently, meet policy goals as wide-ranging as reducing obesity, making children learning ready, increase adult volunteering, reduce youth crime and…Well, you continue with your own list – is the need for funding. This is not to dismiss the need, nor devalue the importance of attending to the here and now. But it is to raise the question as to whether we have focussed too exclusively on immediate need, and marginalaised the long-term. (The point being made here is not answered by proposals for national play strategies.)
We may be guilty of something akin to a category error: that is, to think that because we have sought to adduce evidence in support of play’s instrumental utility, it precludes attending to the more long-term task of winning hearts and minds – public, parent, politicians – hearts and minds. The strategic task is to change the terms of the debate about play; and that, of course, means articulating a view about childhood as such, and personhood more generally.
To value play is, by inference at least, to suggest an entire worldview, one uncongenial in these current outcome-oriented times (this something beyond the austerity agenda). I do not believe, have never believed, that children and teenagers’ freedom to play can ultimately be secured in isolation to wider societal changes. In the absence of those changes, we have, and will continue to have, enclave play.
So, in this last blog of 2015 I want, once again, to nail my colours to the mast of this ship – the good ship For Its Own Sake. At present it’s resting, becalmed in some faraway harbour, ever-ready to sail, with but a skeleton crew.
Season’s Greetings and hope for 2016.