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With ever more pressure on children to ‘achieve’, other things will inevitably become squeezed. Add to this a collective fear of what might happen if children play unsupervised and we have a national crisis – high quality, joyful, uninhibited play is under threat

This is of concern because play lies at the heart of healthy child development – and promoting wellbeing and happiness in adults. Play fosters creativity, imagination, dexterity and strength. It allows children to interact with the world around them – and create new worlds of their own. It supports language and social development, making friends and working collaboratively. It allows children to develop a sense of risk, which is crucial in supporting them to make informed decisions that will keep them safe in the future. Indeed, there isn’t an area of child development that isn’t nurtured through play.

On Friday, the staff at Highgate Primary visited the new exhibition ‘Play Well’ at The Wellcome Collection, a wonderfully thought-provoking space that challenges us to think about what it means to play well and consider how opportunities for high quality play can be planned for at school and encouraged at home.

Most fascinating for me, was to consider how the way in which we play shapes who we become. There was a fascinating link between the toys Frank Lloyd-Wright played with as a child and the architectural models he made as an architect. Wandering through the Reception classrooms, it is easy to spot the architects of the future, totally engaged in creating from Lego, Community Blocks or, more recently, ‘Magformers’. I remember reading that the decline in British engineering directly correlates with the decline of Meccano. I don’t know whether this is true, but it certainly makes sense.

Play Well also considered how the nature of play has changed over time. Being a child of the 1960s and 70s, I enjoyed considerably more freedom than most children today. Playing out was the norm – on the street, in the park, at the woods; coming back only when it was time for tea. A series of maps within the exhibition compared the zones in which children played, unsupervised, in the past with today. The comparison was stark.

I still have many of the toys I loved to play with as a child, of which my favourite was a wooden box of Bilofix – a Danish construction toy a bit like wooden Meccano. I keep it in my office and when no-one’s looking, still play with it (see above).

Play is natural and inherent, not just in children, but in adults and, I understand, all other mammals (although less so in sharks). It is protected by the UN convention on the Rights of the Child – ‘That every child has the right to … engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts’, but it needs to be nurtured and protected. When we hear children say, ‘Can we play now?’ remember this is a gift that will support them to become whoever they want to be.