Play provision is what we, the adults, do to help children act on their innate desire to play. We don’t really provide play but we can and do provide the conditions for a child to be able to safely engage in play.
Children cannot play if they are under extreme stress – afraid or hurt or very hungry. But where basic safety and attachment relationships with caregivers are present, children will play anywhere, anyhow.
Play is the natural way children grow into the world, changing it and adapting to it at the same time. It is biological and developmental – they will look for any way to do it, just as surely as the little helicopter seeds that float down from the maple trees every spring look for a bit of soil in which to sprout.
When at play, children create uncertainties, test themselves, experiment, see if they can master a precarious situation. They are true scientists, experimenting with themselves and the world around them. The “as-if” quality of play means that if things don’t go so well, it doesn’t really matter – it is make-believe, after all! They can try again or move onto something else. Play is how we develop flexible responses, enhancing adaptive capabilities and resilience. (Lester and Russell, 2010, Spinka et al. 2001, Pellis and Pellis, 2009, Burghardt, 2006)
Play is integral to growing up, to developing mastery of self and world and to discovering one’s sense of self in a world that is constantly in flux. Many children will disrupt the line-up to music class, make mayhem out of putting their boots on, find a way to subvert the rules of the lunch room, because they are playing and need to play – especially if they don’t get enough opportunities to play, alone or with other children during or after school.
Good quality play provision gives children multiple and diverse opportunities to engage body and mind in imaginative “as-if” situations, to do what they want to do, try things out, with objects, and with each other.
Playing is nature at work in a dynamic relationship between the child and environment. While playing might seem random, chaotic, unfocused, and without purpose, it is actually a natural system in development – as genes are unlocked, neuro-plasticity is being developed, mind and body are activated through the pleasures of curiosity, experimentation, focus, making and destroying, the desire for risk, surprise and joy.
Sometimes adults need to suppress playing behaviour actively – for lessons or dinner or to safely cross the street. School, social compliance and safety are all important parts of a child’s life. But so is play. Where the environment is too controlling or dull and play is muffled, children suffer. They become parched for the complexity of experiences that they need in order to develop healthily in every way – intellectually, socially and emotionally.
Play provision is what we do when we actively ensure that children have what they need to play freely and richly, exploring the many possibilities of their environment and engaging in many different kinds of play.
Play provision involves assessing risk because safety is important but play is intrinsically risk-seeking. Risk-benefit analysis involves making some very important judgment calls about how much risk is acceptable and how much judgment should be left to the children.
Play provision includes consciously providing the necessary human relationships as well as a world of objects, large and small, natural and man-made.
Who does the providing?
Many people are involved in the rearing and care of children. Parents, grandparents, and other relatives are most often primary. Next come the institutions such as daycares, schools and clubs involved in care and educational or recreational programming for children. Less obviously because somewhat more removed from the immediate responsibility of care are the neighbours, local shopkeepers, and road-users (motorists, cyclists) who make up the community that surrounds children and their families. Finally, it is important to be aware that all levels of government, municipal, provincial and national have responsibility for policies, laws and programs that impact the lives of children and their ability to access rich or even “just good enough” play environments.