Working Hard at Play

Pigalle Tavakkoli

We are told to leave childhood play behind as we enter into the role of becoming adults. It is often portrayed as a frivolous waste of time, to be replaced by being serious and becoming hard workers. We grow up to think of playing as unproductive. But it just as essential for adults to play as it is for children.

“Children smile 400 times a day on average…adults 15 times. Children laugh 150 times a day…adults 6 times a day. Children play between 4-6 hours a day…adults only 20 minutes a day” – Robert Holden, Ph.D., Director of The Happiness Project and Success Intelligence.

Since childhood I have always enjoyed playing, from delving into my imagination and occupying myself for hours on end, to exploring the world around me in the games I played with friends. I have since carried the sense of vitality that play brings into my working life. I design event experiences for adults to explore educational content within playful formats and interactions. I use play as a tool to bond audiences through laughter. Once they become relaxed and feel united, they interact with one another in an open exchange of ideas. A transformation occurs as they lower their barriers and connect back to being in a child like state. By removing the pressure to produce a tangible outcome, audiences discover untapped parts of themselves and are surprised by actually learning a great deal.


So what exactly is play? Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D, vice president for play studies at The Strong, the National Museum of Play, New York, USA, defines it as “a process, not a thing”, that begins with anticipation and “in between you find surprise, pleasure, understanding”.  Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, California, USA, also describes play as “purposeless, fun and pleasurable”, with the focus on the actual experience and not the accomplishment of a goal. It is this uninhibited joy, which comes from playing just for the sake of it, that provides the key to unlocking the benefits of play. For playing is not just a distraction from learning, it is learning. It is when playing on their own and with each other that children are able to test their physical skills, express their creativity, take initiative, explore managing emotions, develop social skills and increase their problem solving abilities.

On a visit to the humanistic alternative school Play Mountain Place, Los Angeles, USA, I was impressed by their experiential approach to children’s education. Founded in 1949 by the late child development specialist Phyllis Fleishman, Play Mountain places children at the centre of their learning process, encouraging them to express their emotions, create strong bonds of friendship, and gain self-confidence through unconditional positive acceptance. Phyllis was influenced by the humanistic works of the psychologist Carl Rogers, as well as the educator A.S. Neill. As a contemporary of Phyllis, A.S. Neill founded Summerhill School, Suffolk, UK, which is run as a democratic community, with the schooling devised to fit around the child rather than the other way around.

A key aspect of the Play Mountain curriculum is its focus on addressing children’s social and emotional development as well as their intellectual growth. Rewards, punishments, coercion or grades are not used as incentives, as the school follows the understanding that children have an inherent desire to learn, and for this to be facilitated rather than forced. Phyllis Fleishman, Carl Rogers and A.S. Neill all believed in what Carl called “experiential learning”. Through the act of playing and doing, rather than being told, children are encouraged to think for themselves and engage in true learning. Play Mountain cultivates education as a process, not a product. Through their methods, they have found that children become self-motivated if they are permitted to direct their own studies, and their subsequent joy of learning then increases their interest to learn further, as a virtuous circle that feeds itself.

At Play Mountain children are treated with equal respect and without judgement. They participate in discussing, challenging and setting their individual limits, and come to fully understand the consequences of their actions, and the responsibilities that come with them, through the actual experience of them. In this way, children develop their interpersonal skills and practise tools for resolving conflicts, increasing respect for themselves, one another and their environment. As a result, children learn more than the traditional curriculum of the “Three R’s”, they become empowered as adults to take part fully in the world around them, maintain an open and receptive approach, and ultimately gain a deep understanding and connection to themselves.

Play Mountain’s approach has since been backed up by extensive studies spanning a decade, carried out by Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, UK. His studies have demonstrated that children naturally learn as a self organising process, and that adult interventions in this process should be based around how to best facilitate and support this, rather than controlling and impeding this inherent desire to engage with the world.

As I bid farewell to Play Mountain I was left wondering, if children learn so much through play should we continue to play as adults? Might playing throughout our lives contribute towards us becoming happier and more fulfilled? And would this lead to thriving communities that enhance society as a whole?

Pigalle Tavakkoli is a Creative Producer and Course Tutor, Experience Design at Central St Martins, University of the Arts, London UK. Her website is Designing Transformative Experiences



Play Mountain Place:

Images by Mike Massaro and Play Mountain Place