Saffia Farr discovers why Michael Rosen would like us all to play more
In the words of my 13-year-old son, “Michael Rosen is a legend”. Where to start on why: he’s the author of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, he’s a former Children’s Laureate, he’s a wordsmith, a poet, he champions reading and literature, and he makes really funny videos. When I was researching for this article, my sons could not stop talking about ‘No Breathing in Class’ and ‘Chocolate Cake’ – put this magazine down now and go and watch them if you’ve not seen them yet…this is the sort of fun Michael inspires.
He’s keen that we all ‘play’ more. I asked him why. Play is one of our core ways of thinking, doing and learning. Sadly, it’s overlooked or marginalised and downgraded, often replaced by what’s seen as more important or more necessary – the acquisition of knowledge. Sometimes it is also hidden behind its sister – playing games. I distinguish between game-playing, where the rules are written or made up by other people or encoded into rulebooks, and those games we play where we make up rules, change them as we go along, adapt them from other games – like one-a-side football that I play with my son on a beach.
Why do you think this is important? Play can explore any medium, any material, in any context. It’s a mistake to restrict it to ‘play areas’ or ‘playtimes’. Daydreaming is a form of play. Free dancing is play. Adapting recipes or instructions on how to plant a shrub are forms of play. Doodling, drumming on the table with your fingers, playing ‘who am I?’ are all forms of play.
How do you suggest we, as boring adults with too many responsibilities, make space for this sort of play in our lives? I guess that we should be more alert to the benefits of play. We all have a sense of our inadequacies. We all have a sense of low esteem at various times in our life. We all have a sense, I would suggest, that there are times that the world requires us to do things in a particular way. All this can feel oppressive or even depressing. Or both. The great thing about play is that it enables us to make and do things, and to change. We can change something – a piece of clay, the movement of our body, the words we speak or write. When we discover that we can change something in a free way, in ways that we decide, then the world itself doesn’t seem so oppressive. I know that’s a big claim but it’s an activity principle: through free discovery, invention, imagination, and making and doing, we can find confidence and – if we’re doing it with others – co-operation and companionship.
How do we inspire our children to play in this way? Actually, I think of it the other way round. How can we be inspired by the way children play? Many children of a certain age will ‘role play’ – engaging in dramatic situations, taking on roles other than their own, acting out wishes, desires, fears, anxieties in little dramas, sometimes using dolls, or model creatures, Playmobil. Many children improvise with materials they find around them, when they’re on a beach, say. We can learn how to do that by imitating what children do or, alternatively, remembering how we did it when we were children.
How do you hope Michael Rosen’s Book of Play will inspire people? I hope that people will see play in a new light – not as a trivial unimportant unnecessary activity. I hope that they find time and space to expand the play they’re already involved in or find new ways to play.
Where, or how, do you find your inspiration? I guess a good deal of it comes from remembering, musing on my memories. I like listening to people’s stories. And I like reading.
What is your favourite play suggestion in the book? Riddles and riddle-making – you’ll find it on pages 76 and 77!
Michael Rosen’s Book of Play! Why Play Really Matters, and 101 Ways to Get More of it in Your Life, illustrated by Charlotte Trounce, is published by Profile Wellcome. It is tied to the free exhibition, Play Well, at the Wellcome Collection in London, running until March 2020.
This interview was originally published in JUNO Winter 2019.