Wired to play… no matter the age!

Ms Amy Woodgate | Head of Junior and Middle Schools

‘A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.’

– Pablo Neruda (Poet)

As well-know Australian educator and author, Maggie Dent states, ‘children are wired to play.  Play is very serious business for them’.  We have the privileged opportunity of witnessing our boys and girls play each and every day, whether we, or even they, realise they are.

It is easier to recognise play when we observe a group of students building stables for their ‘horses’ out of blocks, or when a young child excitedly shows us the fairy garden they’ve created under a hedge for the family of imaginary fairies.  We can recognise play in our older students playing a game of handball or kicking a football on the oval.

What we may not initially recognize as play is that young person engrossed in the drawing they are creating, the group of students laughing at the outcome of a brain teaser maths challenge or the teenager fascinated by what they have found when they disassembled the engine of a broken down dirt bike to see how it works.

‘Play is a state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time.  And play is self-motivated so you want to do it again and again.

-Dr Stuart Brown (American doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher)

Our initial understanding of play is quite often that of ‘free play’.  What we must remember is that play is a purposeful form of learning that is intrinsically motivated and sees young people actively engaged in discovery.  Playful experiences foster creativity, curiosity and imagination.  Play is loud, play is silent, play is messy, play is solitary and play is interactive.  It can be one or all of these things at once.

In their recent book, Let the Children Play, renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg and academic William Doyle, espouse the importance of play as how we learn from an early age to interact with the world around us.  They state that play nurtures self-esteem and self-regulation, whilst developing problem solving skills, an understanding of social rules and enhancing our cognitive understanding and physical and brain development.  Simply, they believe that play is powerful.

Dr Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute of Play based in California.  In his 2009 book, ‘Play’, he describes research conducted in various fields, such as neuroscience, psychology or behavioural science, that affirms the importance of play as a basic biological process that promotes survival, shapes the brain and makes us more adaptable.  He states that play lies at the core of creativity and innovation and is the purest form of expression.

Dr Brown continues in his book to explore the importance of play for all of us, no matter our age.  He proposes that as children we play quite naturally.  We are inquisitive, open to risk taking and take enjoyment from it.  We learn how the world works, how relationships are formed and how friends interact.  We learn to take a risk, to try something new and to let our creativity flow with no bounds.  Dr Brown argues that at some point we begin to ‘feel guilty’ about play, start believing that it is a waste of time, or just something we do if we have spare time.

Perhaps we need to start considering play more in terms of those feelings of exhilaration and pure joy that we all had when we were younger.  That feeling when we made a new friend at the park, built a pillow fort in nanna’s loungeroom or made a new home for that lizard we found in the garden.  Dr Brown proposes that whilst play is different for everyone, being playful, being curious and spending time doing what brings us joy should be a part of all of our lives.  It can be riding a bike, spending time in the garden, reading a good book or making a delicious meal.  There is no right or wrong way to play.

I often find myself reflecting upon all of this when in the Junior School playground.  We are so incredibly fortunate to have this beautiful outdoor environment for our children.  On any given day, there are children doing gymnastics routines on the grass, a group of boys and girls playing football, while others are pushing one another on the birds nest swing.  At the same time as this, children are climbing the towers, balancing on the cargo nets or going down the fireman’s pole.  A group will be making concoctions from water and sand, others will be building a track for their cars and even more will be working together to build a dam in the river bed.  It is simply enjoyable to watch and I find myself leaving the area with a smile after each playtime when I’ve had the privilege to witness the pure enjoyment they achieve from their play.

So with what we know about play, perhaps it is time that we carve out a small spot in our day or week to be playful, to be curious and to experience just a little of that joy our boys and girls do when they are going down the slide.



National Institute of Play


Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

Sahlberg, P., & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the Children Play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive. New York: Oxford University Press.