The Power of Play

This is the speech I was asked to give at the Khanyisa Graduation on Wednesday.  The afternoon was longer than expected (especially after the spontaneous speech by the ward counselor who promised a minute but gave us half an hour).  By the time my slot came around the children were drooping and the audience was distracted.  So I chopped my speech in half and spoke at twice the speed.  But since I put a bit of effort into the writing of it I share it here to give it a bit more of an audience!

Do you remember a game that you played when you were a child the age of these graduates? Can you remember how you played it and what you did? Can you remember how it felt in your body? Can you remember any other details? I am sure that for some of you this memory is very clear, some might even be able to recall vivid details from the experiences of playing this game.

A game I remember playing as a child was called elastics (I think kids still play it today). A long elastic stretched around two bodies to make a box and someone jumping over the elastics in various ways as they get higher and higher.   Thinking about this game now I can see how much I was learning in this game: physical co-ordination, working as a team, confidence and social skills.

Can anyone describe a game they played to us? Can you think of what you might have been learning from this game?

The game I described was a competitive group game. Can any of you remember games you played by yourself or with one other? Maybe playing with dolls or building things out of stones or mud? Maybe creating fantasy worlds and interacting with this fantasy. Can anyone think what you might have been learning from these games?

This type of play, sometimes called fantasy play, is a rich learning space for a child. They are learning about themselves, what they like and don’t like. They are making sense of their world, figuring out scary and confusing experiences. They are developing communications skills, strategic thinking and social skills. They are integrating what they are in the process of learning. They are problem solving skills and employing flexible thinking. They are using abstract thinking and symbolic thinking.  This even helps with reading (you need to be able to understand that the those black marks on the page can turn into a story).

All this leads to psychological health and importantly to the development of creativity.

Amanda Morgan says “By promoting creative play we are not just validating the work of childhood, but we are promoting thought, language, and psycho-social health.  Add to that the fact that this type of play is self-motivated, natural, and enjoyable, and you have the recipe for a fabulous learning opportunity!” (

The great pediatrician and child psychologist Donald Winnicott was one of the first theorists to write extensively on the value of play (Although Peter Slade was writing about it in the 50’s). In his book “Playing and Reality” published in 1971 he wrote “Play is universal and it belongs to health.” He spoke of how playing facilitates growth and therefore psychological health.

If I asked you what you remembered about sitting at your desk in your classroom before the age of 7, I am guessing that you would not be able to describe as much in as vivid detail as your stories about the games you played.

The funny thing is that children are learning all these critically important things – from physical co-ordination to social and language skills through play but then we stop them from playing and put them behind a desk where learning is so much more difficult!

Khanyisa understands this and has invested time and energy in developing the playful and creative capacitity of its educators to enable integrating play into the classroom. It has been my privilege to work with Khanyisa staff in my workshops in the last two years.

Winnicott goes on to say that children play more easily when those they are playing with are able to be free and playful. And so we see that it’s not enough for children to play freely but for the adults that are caring for them to be able to play as well. This will further enhance the quality of the learning environment.

For many adults this is a challenge as they have been told that playing is wasted time and that they must be serious and responsible. Some adults may not even have been given a chance to play as children and so may not feel comfortable with playing.

So we turn our attention to the educator and the importance of developing the playful capacity in the adult as well. Those of you that have been in my workshops have discovered that it’s not enough to focus on the child but also on yourself as person.

The truth is it that it is only through play that we can be free to be creative. Winnicott says that when we are creative we are able to use our whole personality and this way we discover who we are. When we are able to live in a way that is creative it makes life worth living.

Put up your hand if you think you are artistic. …

If you did not put up your hand perhaps you think that you can’t draw, dance, sing like a professional. Because you can’t make a living from what you create you think you aren’t artistic and for some of you that might make you think you aren’t creative. If you think you aren’t creative then you shut down that part of yourself because you are so critical of what you produce that it is no fun. Taking the fun out of creating can mean that you loose confidence in yourself and further reduce your creative capacity. It can also mean that you become critical of others that are trying out their creativity and are not producing something perfect. It can mean that we shut down children that are creating for the pure pleasure of creating but not working towards the perfect product.

Thus we see why developing a respect for creativity in ourselves as well as our children becomes crucial for a healthy and well resourced school environment.

Pablo Picasso said “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up”.

So if creativity is not about making a perfect product then what is it? It is actually about a process, an attitude and a way of being in the world. It is the use of imagination, finding new ideas, transcending traditional patterns.   It’s about being present and aware, being prepared to take a risk, make a mistake and learn from it. In my workshops on creativity the focus is on allowing the participants to find the creativity within themselves and the joy that that evokes. Creativity is a muscle that must be exercised. Sometimes we need a bit of kickstart to get reconnected to our creativity.   Once connected you will infect everyone around you: Creativity is contagious!

Adults that work with children (and other adults) who are able to be creative in their lives are at a huge advantage. They are better problem solvers, are less stressed, more positive, better communicators, less addictive, more spontaneous, easier to be around, healthier and much better at being around children. It makes sense then to nurture this capacity in our educators.

The greatest gift you can give your child and yourself this Christmas is giving your time and full attention to playing together.

I would like to congratualate Khanyisa for recognising the importance of this and making it a priority.

P.S.  The Headmistress of the school, Bukelwa Booysen, is an extremely competent woman with high standards.  The school also supports adults with special needs.  If you need a worth cause to donate to this would be a good one.

P.P.S.  I was really amazed by the children’s various performances, especially as they did almost everything (counting, colours, alphabet etc) in three languages: English, Afrikaans and Xhosa!

P.P.S. My next Reconnect to your Creativity workshop is from the 17th till the 19th of February 2017.  Contact me on for more info or see this website ( on the workshops page.

The Power of Play

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