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Free play and free choice: troubling the
Dr Elizabeth Wood
Professor of Education
University of Exeter
Play and playfulness help to make us the most complex and successful
primates on the planet.
Play is not just for children, play is for everyone.
Lifelong playing is just as important as lifelong learning.
Human life is one long improvisation (Holzman, 2009) – we are constantly
being/becoming , and therefore developing. ‘Playful’ identity work.
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Brian Sutton-Smith (1997: 195) ‘the incredible structural
complexity of the intricate enactment of play’.
Joshua and the BBQ
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(Some of) the challenges for play scholarship
Definitions of play: functional, behavioural, psychological, age-related
characteristics, developmental indicators.
Forms of play: free play, organised games and sports, community play (such
as festivals, parties, carnivals), dark play, risky/extreme play, virtual play.
Reasons for play: relaxation/renewal of energy, exuberant dispersal of energy,
quiet contemplation, competition, rivalry, co-operation, mastery, practice,
rehearsal, fun?
Motivations for play: freedom, choice, agency, control, power, disruption,
contestation, balancing the possible and the probable. (dis)ordering, (un)tidying)
de(stabilising), (de)constructing.
Conditions for play: play is always dependent on context, as well as mood
states and intentions of the players.
Socio-cultural/cultural-historical perspectives: zones
of and zones for development
Play is not the predominant activity, but is the leading source of
development in the preschool years (Vygotksy, 1978) (also interpreted
as the leading activity – see Bodrova, 2008)
Play contains all the developmental tendencies: it is the source of
development and creates the zone of proximal development.
Underlying play are changes in needs and changes in general
consciousness. (Vygotksy, 1978)
Play creates zones for proximal development (Newman and Holzman,
1993). Children do what is familiar to them, and what is beyond them
so that they are constantly being/becoming (Holzman, 2009)
Play is revolutionary (transformative) activity
Play is about creative invention
and imitation (not merely copying) but
And now I
am flying, a
beautiful bird
Play as performance – a dialectical
unity of being and becoming (Holzman,
In play activities children act with
imagined agency, power and
competence. Power acts on and
through children. Wood (2012)
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Play repertoires are culturally/historically influenced and culturally
created by children (children’s cultural worlds and practices) (Edwards,
2010; Marsh 2013)
Action in the imaginative sphere, in an imaginary situation,
the creation of voluntary intentions and the formation of reallife plans and volitional motives – all appear in play and
make it the highest level of pre-school development. The
child moves forward essentially through play activity. Only in
this sense can play be considered the leading activity that
determines a child’s development (Vygotsky, 1978: 102–
potential space – the possible range of the child’s
omnipotence in which children see themselves as more
capable than they are in other contexts, and act accordingly.
(Winnicot, 1971)
Being and
becoming, identity
– possible selves
J as footballer
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A sense of
Playful participation
in social and cultural
practices – play
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Children’s play interests may be
intrinsically bound with their selfinterests, including status and
identity maintenance. Play involves
complex social processes:
orchestrating tasks, negotiating
power relationships, managing
inclusion and exclusion, maintaining
self-regulation, developing resilience,
and taking risks.
mastery of play
Material agency – acting on
and with mediational means
Zones of possible and probable
What does this
What can I do with
Play as ‘self-actualisation’
Children perform different roles and relate to others in ways
that they are not yet fully capable of performing (Holzman,
Children act as if they are artists, technologists, designers,
scientists, writers, makers, inventors – free play and choice
assist combinatorial flexibility
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Playing involves imagination and pretence: ‘what if’ and ‘as if’.
Play has ‘meta-level’ qualities – imagination, communication and symbolic
transformations based on everyday knowledge .
Play involves playing with feelings, mood states, identities, possibilities,
Play as ethical practice – developing relational
capacities such as empathy and theory
of mind. Edminston (2008)
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Don’t be
it’s only
Towards post-structural perspectives
Play as a form of cultural appropriation – children learn
about social norms and rules, about symbols, tools, within
cultural-historical repertories of practice.
BUT Corsaro argues that
‘children come to collectively produce their own peer worlds
and cultures’ (1997: 24)
Which raises issues about children’s choices, power,
narratives, meanings, symbols, rituals, relationships,
imaginative capabilities.
Children’s choices and popular cultures.
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places and
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Play can involve individual and group rebelliousness against adultimposed rules and regulatory practices. Rebelliousness can be
expressed in overt or covert ways. ‘John and the Trolls’
Play can also be ....chaotic, ‘dizzy’, unpredictable, noisy, messy,
anarchic, challenging to established rules and authority, subversive,
revolutionary, exuberant, wild....BUT there may also be order within
the apparent chaos. (Wood, 2008; 2010)
Children are performing imagined selves – who they are and who they
are becoming. Playful identity work. ‘The hanging tree’
Playful children can be petulant, boisterous, careless with
the feelings of others, and downright mean. They are fond
of ‘showing off’ and ‘grossing out’ one another. They are
hungry for the peer-based status that comes from
demonstrating their defiance of adult roles. (Henricks,
2010, 204)
Pretence is a form of agency because children act with
imagined power. Play becomes a testing ground for whose
freedom, power and control can be exercised. (Wood,
Philosophical theories of play People are able to imagine things they never were
and never will be...play should be understood as one
of the special places for the conjuring of
Henricks (2009)
into another
in frivolity
Play is a mode of
existence, a state of mind
and a state of being
Play is a thing unto
itself, a rebellion of
the moment against
longer-term patterns
and commitments
If play is a thing unto itself, then…
We need to pay more attention to
children’s cultures, purposes and
meanings, and the ways in which
playful children will create more
possibilities than we
could ever imagine.
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Corsaro, W. 1997. The Sociology of Childhood, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Edwards, S. 2010. 'Numberjacks are on their way! A cultural historical reflection on
contemporary society and the early childhood curriculum', Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 18:
3, 261 — 272:
Henricks, T. 2009. Play and the rhetorics of time: progress, regression and the meaning of
the present, in D. Kuschner, (ed) From Children to Red Hatters: Diverse Images and Issues
of Play, Maryland, University Press of America.
Henricks, T.S. 2010. Play as ascending meaning revisited: four types of assertive play, in
Nwokah, E.E. (Ed) Play as Engagement and Communication, Play and Culture Studies, Vol
10. Maryland, University Press of America.
Holzman, L. 2009. Vygotsky at work and play, London, Routledge
Sutton-Smith, B. 1997. The Ambiguity of Play, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, E. 2008. Everyday play activities as therapeutic and pedagogical encounters,
European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 10:2, 111-120.
Wood, E. 2010. Reconceptualising the play-pedagogy relationship, in L. Brooker & S.
Edwards, Engaging Play, Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Wood, E. 2012. Free choice and free play in early childhood education: troubling the
discourse. International Journal of Early Years Education (in press)
Wood, E. & Attfield, J. 2005. Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum, London,
[email protected]

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