Why do our childhood play memories matter?

Robin Moore Adventure Playground photo

Photo: Robin Moore

Playworker and blogger Morgan Leichter-Saxby recently posted a thoughtful three part series of pieces on the topic of play memories. She argued that, while the process of inviting adults to recall their childhood memories of play can be powerful, it needs to be done with care, and may not always be appropriate. I see her point, but feel the technique has a value that is hard to downplay.

I almost always draw on people’s play memories in my work: in talks, in workshops and even in consultancy projects. I use the technique to help adults to appreciate children’s immense appetite for experience and everyday adventure, and their desire to find places and times when they are beyond the anxious gaze of adults. I emphasise that it is not about glorifying some alleged golden age to grow up. I make it clear that yes, the childhoods of children, young people and young adults today may well be different. But that doesn’t mean they are damaged, or are heading to hell in a handcart. Which is one of the reasons I have a problem with the idea of ‘play deprivation’ [pdf link]. (It is not the only reason, but that is a topic for another time.)

In my experience, getting adults to reflect on their childhood play experiences has a profound positive impact. Lightbulbs go off. Debates open up – about risk, for instance – that would otherwise get bogged down in unproductive rehearsals of bar-room opinions. Permission is given to admit to some key insights, like the fact that children at play can sometimes be cruel, destructive and transgressive.

People very quickly get the point that giving children a taste of freedom, encounters with uncertainty and opportunities to take risks (and to take some responsibility for their safety) are key ingredients of a ‘good enough’ childhood. Even if – as sometimes happens – people’s individual memories are different, they recognise and accept the implications. Witness this testimonial from one of my first major consultancy clients, the Forestry Commission.

The aim of much of my work is to motivate adults to do things differently, and to do this as a result of seeing children differently (hence my website name!) People tend to be more motivated by a sense of loss, of things going wrong, than by a positive vision – a point I have made in recent debates about the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’. (A positive vision is important too, but it is rarely the catalyst for change.) Play memories exercises are a powerful tool for getting adults to see how children’s lives could be improved.

It is for others to judge the impact of my work. But if it has made a difference, it is in part down to this conviction. If adults are to allow children to play more and have more everyday autonomy, they need to be confronted with the contrast between the childhood freedoms that they took for granted and the scheduled, controlled, goldfish-bowl lives of so many children today.

7 responses to “Why do our childhood play memories matter?

  1. playeverything

    Beautifully said, Tim! I wouldn’t disagree with you on any aspect here. My point was primarily that we shouldn’t rely on shorthand versions of these exercises to make all those connections for people – to flip all the lightbulbs on, and that we have other tools in the box as well.

    I’d be really interested to hear more about the processes you use during these exercises, and the different kinds of responses you’ve had (and how you’ve responded to them in turn).

    Lovely piece!

  2. Thanks for the feedback Morgan! Yes there are other tools for that job – but this one is very useful. I use it differently in different contexts. With larger audiences (like the one we had at Shoreditch House) I tend to keep it short-ish, with a simple invitation to chat in pairs about favourite places to play, and a quick show of hands in response to a couple of questions: was that place out of doors, and was it out of sight of adults. With smaller groups and more time, I may allow more opportunities for conversations. Last week in a workshop on risk, I invited people to share memories of childhood injuries. It was in part an attempt to get well beyond light-hearted nostalgia and to remind people that things do sometimes go wrong. It did get into some more tricky territory, and I’m undecided about whether I’d do it again. But the only circumstance where I wouldn’t want to do a basic play memories exercise at all is where a lot of my audience has done them before – eg with playwork audiences, it has become hackneyed. Even then, I might be tempted to try a twist on it.

  3. I strongly agree with Morgan’s ethos about adults needing to play though. When did you last skip down the street? I am 63 and do it frequently. Boy it feels good and gets you places fast! It makes people smile too. Try a drawing with a chubby wax crayon. But finding people to romp with is difficult. And tell me this. Where is my nearest adult activity playpark? Scandinavia?

  4. Chris – the artist Lottie Child has devised a programme called street training that aims to encourage people of all ages to engage more playfully with the spaces and places around them. She says she was inspired by watching how children play in everyday environments. She poses the question: at what age do we all stop walking down the street playfully, and start walking down the street with our ‘walking down the street face’?

    • Looks like I need to get into “parkour”. Thanks. Another concern I have though is glamourising that children have the answers to happiness. That play & closer connection to nature are a must. Both these items are full of competition, stress, upset. Yes I know that is all connected with “learning” but I don’t think its why young people laugh so much and are so joyful. Why & when do we lose that?

  5. Pingback: Memories matter | Changeittogod

  6. Pingback: How child-friendly is Moscow? | Rethinking Childhood

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