Students’ Den: “All work and no play … ?” A project investigating the public health discourse on children’s play.
Closing our first series of students’ articles, Stephanie Alexander offers an interesting introduction to a somewhat different Public Health topic: children’s play. We would very much like to have your views on this thought-provoking post! Many thanks to Stephanie for her contribution!
In our contemporary western society a high value is attributed to playing– we all play (or at least we used to) and perhaps we feel we should play more often. Play is particularly valued in childhood, because it is considered so crucial for the development of intellectual, social, physical and psychological abilities. Beyond this, playing is also meant to be fun! Although there is no official definition of play, most definitions suggest that playing is pleasurable, is intrinsically motivated, imaginative and creative, is pursued for its own sake (i.e., no promise of external rewards), and is most often not a part of ordinary, day-to-day life. This form of playing, which has been labelled “free-play” is considered so critical for childhood that it has been declared a ‘right of every child’ by the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Despite the importance of playing for childhood, there is a growing awareness that children’s play has changed radically, particularly in North America. The general sense is that “free-play” for children is on the decline. This decline has been attributed to changing perceptions regarding child safety and risks associated with play, particularly outdoor play, and the resulting need for increased supervision and management of children’s play. All of this has placed constraints on how and where children play. In addition, social and cultural trends over the past decades in North America have also created competitive educational environments for children in which play is becoming predominantly education-oriented and increasingly structured. A counter-trend has thus emerged among some childhood educators, psychologists and “play advocates”, all of whom are aiming to resurrect free-play in childhood.
The discussions about resurrecting free-play for children have also begun to resonate with public health concerns around child health. With increasing public health alarms over childhood obesity and sedentariness active free-play has begun to be considered for its health potential, specifically as a means of countering childhood obesity. For example, outdoor play structures and parks have begun to be reconsidered for the opportunities they provide to promote physical activity in children. As the title of a recent press release on the Alliance for Childhood website illustrates, there is a growing belief that: “Free-play is the missing link in anti-obesity campaign”.
Is public health “all work, no play”?
While there is no intention to critique public health efforts to promote children’s health more generally, this particular public health discourse around children’s free-play is not without some potential unintended consequences. By advancing free-play as an instrument of health in this way, play in public health becomes a means to achieve a public health end. That is, playing is encouraged for the sake of health rather than simply for the sake of playing. This transformation of play to ‘play for health’ in turn threatens to strip free-play of some of its fundamental elements, particularly its freedom, its spontaneity, and importantly its pleasurable characteristics. From a child’s perspective, this might be the difference between wanting to play ‘just because it’s fun’ and having to play ‘because it’s healthy’. What is problematic in all of this is that these potentially ‘lost’ elements are in fact those that have been considered so critical to children’s overall well-being and happiness. As play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has suggested, the loss of pleasure in play for children is particularly critical, since play for children, quite simply, “makes them happier”.
These reflections have recently stimulated the development of a doctoral project being conducted at the Université de Montréal, which aims to examine this emerging public health discourse in public health.
Specifically, it aims to investigate how children’s free-play is being discussed and promoted in a field that is, for the most part, health-outcome oriented. A discourse analysis of public health texts around children’s play will be conducted to examine the assumptions underlying the public health representation of children’s play, to highlight elements that are potentially being relegated or omitted in the current discourse (e.g., pleasure?) and to investigate how this discourse might be shaping the way play is thought about and engaged in by children. As a complement to this discourse analysis, child-guided photography sessions and interviews will be conducted to understand what children have to say about their own play. The goal here is to understand what playing means to a diverse group of children – where and with whom they play, what they like about different forms of play and why they like playing in these ways. These two components together will help illustrate the way children’s own perspectives on playing are situated within the public health discourse on play and may help identify how public health discourse is beginning to shape children’s play behaviours.
The hope is that in the short term this project will encourage a critical stance within public health toward this emerging discourse on play with a call to further reflection on the assumptions underlying public health knowledge around children’s play (e.g., questioning of messages that present free-play as a practice to counter a disease). In the long term, the hope is that there will be increasing reflection on the role that public health has in advancing existing societal/cultural trends that value productivity, progress and utilitarianism over elements such as pleasure, creativity or diversity (i.e., what kind of citizens is public health construcing by promoting play to children in this way).
This doctoral project is being conducted by Stephanie Alexander and supervised by Dr. Katherine Frohlich (Université de Montréal) and Dr. Caroline Fusco (University of Toronto). For more information about the project, references or comments and ideas, contact Stephanie Alexander: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.