ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 6, Spring 2012

Master of play


Anything can happen in the magical world of play. A stick becomes a magic wand, a cardboard box becomes a castle and a kindergarten teacher becomes a master player. Sara Coen enters into Dr Elizabeth Wood’s world of play.

Chalk dust flying and standing at a tiny blackboard, Elizabeth Wood spent much of her childhood imparting knowledge to an army of teddies and dolls. Despite a lack of response from the toys, it’s no surprise Elizabeth went on to pursue a successful career in education. 

Dr Elizabeth Wood – Professor of Education at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and a visiting scholar at ACU – has earned an international reputation for her research on play, exploring the progression of play, how play develops over time and the forms of playfulness among older children. 

“My interest in play began when I was a teacher of young children. It was when I was teaching children aged three to four years old that I became fascinated by the kinds of activities they chose in the kindergarten where I worked – and the extraordinary capabilities they demonstrated in their play activities.

“Children choose many different things when they are in varied and rich learning environments. First of all I was interested in the range of activities they chose, but also what they did in those activities, in particular the way in which children use their creativity and imagination in play.”

Professor Wood said she was continually fascinated by the ways in which childhood play can predict who and what people become in adulthood. She started to notice a link between early forms of play and career trajectories, hobbies, pastimes and interests. 

“We know that the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, enjoyed playing with building blocks as a young boy,” she said. “He then went on to design more than 1,000 structures across the United States, consisting of many well known churches, hotels and galleries – his most recognised masterpiece being the Guggeneheim Museum in New York.

“The Bronte sisters, as children, engaged in lots of small world play with figures and soldiers – then intricately transcribed stories about these miniature worlds into tiny little books.

“As a child, my daughter was keen on physical games and sport – and as a 30-year-old she’s at a spin class every night, so nothing much has changed with her either.”

Play is considered to be highly significant for young children’s learning and development, with substantial research to support the benefits of play in early childhood. 

However, there is an assumption that play tails off after the age of about five, and that children gradually make the transition to more formal activities in which productive ‘work’ takes priority. 

“Play is extremely valuable in terms of shaping and developing a person’s character – and this process does not stop at age five,” Professor Wood said. 

Her research determines the value of play for lifelong developmental learning. 

After looking at the literature on play in adolescence and adulthood, Professor Wood found those who continue to play improve in various areas. These master players learn new things, become more skilled and develop expertise.

“Master players can be anyone from the expert chess player, professional footballer, famous actor or musician – becoming a master player is a lifelong human accomplishment.” 

Far from tailing off, Professor Wood said play develops in complexity and continues to provide important sites in which young people develop relationships, extend their creative activity, and develop their imaginative potential. 
“Playfulness and imagination are essential to subject-based learning in junior school because a well-disciplined and informed imagination can help children to develop as historians, geographers, scientists, artists and writers,” she said. 

Professor Wood’s research explores how ‘anti-play’ ideologies in schools – in which recess time is banned, risky play such as climbing trees is constrained, and computer-based games are restricted – are attributing to a decrease in the amount of time for play in school contexts. 

“As children grow older, they actually get better at play, and to me this is an argument for not cutting off play opportunities in schools – we need to give children the time and space to get better at their play,” she said. 

“Debates about play in early childhood education have been ongoing for a long time – and over the past 15 years, we have really come back to understanding its importance. But in order for play to happen, the policy frameworks also need to be making some very positive statements about play.

“One of the things I found interesting about coming to Australia is learning about the policy trends here in early childhood education. Part of my research is about developing my work on play, but also on developing the other strain of my research, which is around teacher’s professional knowledge and decision-making.

“At the moment there is a bit of a trend, particularly in the UK, towards more planned and purposeful play.

“My concern here, is that if there is too much planning of play, then it is no longer the child’s experience – and play then becomes an idea imposed by an adult, which may well defeat the purpose. Adults can be involved, but it needs to be in ways that are respectful. There is a fine line between facilitating play and controlling play.

“It’s important for adults to teach children skills to use and develop in their own play, but they need to know when to let go – it’s a very subtle balance.”

During her 11 years as a kindergarten teacher, Professor Wood has been invited into the games, activities and play spaces of many young children. 

“It’s a privilege to be invited in, but I think when you’re not invited in, it’s equally important to respect that and move away, because it is their space.”

Spending time in the presence of children continues to drive Professor Wood’s research today – and she always comes away with more questions than answers.

“It’s the questions, the discovery, the exploration, the playing with ideas that I love most about my work – I live a very privileged life as a professor,” she said.

“Yes, I play with ideas. I guess you could say I started out playing with play, and have grown up to become a master player.”

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