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What can children teach us about the power of play?

As adults we tend to believe that even if we don’t know everything, we know more than children. It’s our job to teach the next generation to reach their potential and improve on the foundations that we’ve laid.

But perhaps they instinctively know more than we give them credit for. At the very least, their carefree approach to unstructured play is something we can all learn from. Whether they’re giddily hanging upside down on monkey bars, chasing their friend until their cheeks are rosy or colouring outside the lines, their actions provide an important reminder: play is essential, no matter your age.

The hidden lessons in unstructured play

Professor David Cross, Head of Art and Performance at Deakin University, has been observing children’s playtime habits since his daughter Edie started walking. This milestone also provided much inspiration for his playful participatory artworks. In exploring the layers of commercial play centres, he has seen the wonder that suspended pathways and bouncy surfaces generate in children and believes it serves an important purpose.

‘There is always the kid who does it differently, whether it be through a lack of dexterity, fear or a nascent independent streak. The diversity of responses in what seem to be limited scenarios are profound and make watching so compelling,’ he explains. Indeed, simply navigating a playground highlights a range of problem-solving skills and creative solutions.

While adults tend to become set in their behavioural patterns, children are not afraid to challenge themselves, test and learn – even if that means failing in the process. ‘Things can go awry, such as when unsuspecting bodies collide at speed, or someone falls backwards down the inflatable staircase,’ Prof. Cross points out, and says that although collisions aren’t the desired outcome, there are lessons in sensory interaction and risk-taking.

‘Kids tend to love the overload – the more-is-more logic – but it does have its costs. The result is a strangely gleeful space of vulnerability where unguarded-ness is the principal state of being,’ Prof. Cross says.

'There is always the kid who does it differently, whether it be through a lack of dexterity, fear or a nascent independent streak. The diversity of responses in what seem to be limited scenarios are profound and make watching so compelling.'

Professor David Cross,
Head of Art and Performance at Deakin University

Tearing off the shackles of seriousness

As silly as it might feel to jump on a bouncing castle or take to a slide, such activities can have a remarkably positive impact on our wellbeing. Playing is a pleasurable pursuit after all. Research has found that adults with the ability to be spontaneous and clown around are less stressed and have better coping skills. And while sinking into a ball pit or tackling the seesaw isn’t for everyone, there are plenty of other children’s activities that yield similar results. There’s a great deal of proof that simply drawing or painting can improve mental health and help to get the creative juices flowing.

As we age, the opportunities to express ourselves with reckless abandon become infrequent. All the more reason to actively create those opportunities, Prof. Cross argues. ‘It becomes harder, perhaps, to be unguarded because we are aware of the potential consequences that such a state entails, and our unconscious – and all it remembers – is not easily overridden,’ he says. However, when we succumb to our comfort zones, we fail to grow. ‘We trade off openness for a more pragmatic form of being, less intense and less dangerous in equal measure,’ Prof. Cross says.

There’s only one way to overcome that: start allocating time for play. ‘There are specific frames that enable a renegotiation of the mechanisms of protecting oneself – some look suspiciously like bouncy castles,’ Prof. Cross concludes.

Interested in a career that’s full of play and creativity? Consider the range of art and performance degrees at Deakin University.

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Professor David Cross
Professor David Cross

Head of Art and Performance, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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