Investigating the state of play

Thoughts on The ELEVATE Challenge, Tokyo 22 Feb – 2 March, 2015

by Bronwyn Cumbo (ELEVATE Fellow)

For some of us, the word play conjures images of children splashing in puddles, climbing trees, role-playing in secret dens they’ve constructed out of boxes, tables or twigs. Its benefits to a child’s creative, physical and social development have been well documented. Einstein himself said that ‘play is the highest form of research’.

Despite this, play is a rapidly diminishing part of childhood in many societies around the globe. Loss of outdoor play spaces to urbanisation, rising safety fears of parents, and the loss of free time to structured ‘extra-curricular activities’ to prepare them for adulthood is compromising the time and space children have to play – their way.

So how can we reimagine and (re)inject play into the lives of children during the 21st Century?

This was the question the British Council intended to investigate through their ELEVATE Challenge, held in Japan from 22 February to 1 March. Twelve fellows from the UK, South-East Asia and Australia spent the week discussing their visions for play and learning about the diversity of play perspectives that exist in Japan from local presenters.

Hosting the program in Japan was interesting in itself due its many contradictory values and practices that exist around play. During our Play Safari in Tokyo, Day 1, we witnessed this diversity first hand. Kidzania, a 75,000 square too child-sized city, uses role-play to educate children in financial literacy in preparation for adulthood. Children are trained in a number of roles including a retail worker at Clinique, pizza baker at Piazz-la, or a pilot for ANA, to earn money that they can then spend in other parts of the city. Parents are excluded from these activities, observing their children from the other side of shop windows.

In the boardroom at Sega Toys, the marketing team presented us with their new series of children’s products, some with questionable benefits to a child’s development - a crude reminder that play is a multi-dollar industry and the values of consumerism often take precedence over a developmental benefits or sustainability.

However, there is a whole other side to play in Japan, supported by the Japanese government’s recent focus away from rote to experienced-based learning and play. Galaxcity, a children’s function centre established in Adachi ward, Tokyo contains a number of innovative play spaces and facilities to develop a child’s physical, sensory, creative and spiritual capacities. It is now a popular play space for many local and regional children, and is predicted to increase the socio-economic status of the area.

At the Impact HUB Tokyo, we heard from a variety of innovators who are engaging children in self-directed play activities. Akira Tsukakoshi left his career in IT to establish the Harappa forest school near Fujisawa to enable Japanese families to experience the wonder of the natural world together, free of rules and structure.

Although, these experiences were a taste of what the week provided, it inspired some influential discussions amongst the fellows around the definition of play, the role of parents, and how we could design spaces, objects and programs to support the development of children.

When reflecting on discussions and how we may envisage play this coming century, my mind continues to revisit the theme of ‘space’. The importance of leaving enough space in the designs of places, streets, objects, activities or programs so children have room to discover it, interpret it, add to it, alter it or transform it through their own means.

By creating or leaving space for our children to contribute we can start to recognise the value to the community, and nurture their capacity to create and innovate beyond what previous generations have achieved.