Saturday, 8 June 2013

Play Detective

Finding Evidence of Children at Play

Creative play is like a spring that bubbles up 

 from deep within a child.                                                                                                                      Joan Almon


Speaking at a recent event I was drawn to the bush area of the school playground where I found evidence of children having played in this space over a period of time.

With great excitement I became a Play Detective on the trail of evidence of play!

A stick for mixing?
A secret hoard? Currency?
Natural and man made treasures?
 Finding natural elements combined in a variety of different ways brought back memories of my own rich childhood in South Africa. We created dens using gathered grass cuttings to form rooms and doorways. In this Australian space I found similarly constructed cubbies made using the fallen leaves of the She-oaks instead of grass cuttings. There is often a hierarchy in these structures, some positions are more valued than others; children have regular battles or wars with clearly identified rules established by the children and/or passed on from one ‘generation’ to another as children move on and leave the settings or the space. 

Cubbies with walls, entrances and other detail

It fascinates me is that although the actual natural or man-made materials used may differ I have found very similar evidence of children at play in many very different countries - South Africa, Scotland, England, Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and Australia. I don’t doubt that I would find similar evidence of children's play in other countries...maybe I should explore more countries as part of my research project!

a rock barbeque?

It is the loose parts in our environment that supports our creativity (Simon Nicholson 1970 - Theory of Loose Parts). Loose parts are natural as well as man-made materials that do not necessarily have a particular function and which can be used alone or combined with other materials.

centred art?
fairy garden?
a mixture?
a meal?
shredded leaf potion?
Children naturally gather ‘loose bits' and tend to give them a 'value' based on how hard it is to obtain them; often these are used to trade or barter for other sought after objects. Stones, sticks, seeds, flowers - not just any but those with particular characteristic as identified by children. 

Objects are usually sorted, often using a variety of complex sorting criteria which may not always be immediately evident to the adult. 
blue flower collections?

a tower?
Children tend to look for find and choose a significant space such as a cleared open patch, a raised surface, hollow, hole or they may choose objects such as a leaf, drainpipe lid, brick, log, stone or a piece of bark, to create a space that will act as the ‘canvas’ or 'frame' for their creation. 

Arrangements are deliberate; circles, concentric circles or spirals, angular shapes such as rectangles and triangles (triangles are often 3 dimensional), lined up next to each other either in rows or in lines, stacked or layered on top of each other – each creation is carefully planned to the smallest detail.

a shop?
Often the objects used have been transported a fair distance away from the source – a stick, seedpod, leaf, stone when there is no evidence of other similar objects in the area – these are treasures specifically chosen by the children and transported to their chosen site.
In urban spaces or early childhood settings where there is a lack of natural loose bits children will use whatever loose bits they can find – Lego,bottle tops, plastic scraps, string, paper etc.
stick shop?

Children the world over play and learn in a very similar way when not directed by well meaning adults (ie no adults in their play space!) – irrespective of the curriculum the adults in that country have developed and then inflicted on children. What is important is that the play is allowed to happen over long periods of time without the children's creation being 'cleaned up' by adults so that they can evolve and grow.

As a scientist my nature is to wonder and theorise about what I see and experience; I believe children do the same - they are born little explorers fascinated with the world around them. I have also learnt not to express this wonder with some adults who do not share this with me just as some children lose that awe and wonder if they do not have somebody to share it with. Children deserve to be with adults who share this wonder of the world with them!

table decorations or a posting space?
rock treasures?
Play Detectives are researchers – what objects have the children used, why, where did they come from, what have they created, what could this represent, can we support and extend this interest?  By reflecting and analysing the evidence of play we can build up a knowledge and understanding of children’s thinking and their natural patterns of creative play.

a fire?
dinosaur eggs in a natural hollow?

I had found evidence of children at play, real play – self-directed, creative play over which children have ownership and respect for each other’s work. This play takes place over time with children able to go back and make changes on a daily basis. As the adult I do not necessarily need to know what they were thinking but do need to ensure that children have access to such open ended materials or 'loose bits' as well as the time and space to be creative.

 The richness I achieve comes from Nature,

the source of my inspiration. .                                                                                 Claude Monet


  1. In Peru, I was mesmerized by the play of young children using dirt, stones, sticks, and bottle caps. I was especially captivated by two children using empty plastic soda bottles gathering water in a small channel and then transporting it 4 or so meters upstream to empty the bottles back in the stream and then do it all again and again and etc. For an adult, it may seem like a Sisyphean task, but then again we know too much to really be able to play.

    1. What a lovely reflection on the children's play with water - what age were these children? Children are so creative and will use whatever they find to fulfill their urge to play. Thank you for sharing Tom.

    2. I do not know the children's ages for sure, but I would guess the little boy was 4 and the little girl 6.

  2. Beautiful post Niki & a good reminder for adults to stand back & let children 'be' instead of always directing play. I wonder would you consider adding this to the Outdoor Play Linkup? If you do, a small tip, when it asks for NAME put the posts title not your name :)

  3. Lovely post and I think you're right kids are kids the world over thanks for stopping by the Outdoor Play Party

  4. I've just put a reference to this on my blog at

    The question I want to explore is why our modern society spends so much energy preventing the sort of play that you have documented so well. Some kids are fortunate to attend a creative preschool or have parents who are supportive. But as soon as kids graduate to kindergarden they must leave all of this joyful play behind. My suspicion that this expunging of creative play is based on society's fear of intimacy.

    1. Thank you for referencing Jay :-) You have got me thinking.... I had not thought of this linked to the fear of intimacy so need to reflect a bit. I had always felt that this loss of opportunity to take part in such creative play was because adults don't trust children and always need to see and supervise them which tends to lead to adult directed play.

  5. Just found this lovely blog post following on my discovery of Jay Beckwith's link on his playgroundguru blog. Love the notion and phrase "play detective". It's a interest of mine also as I visit and discover the landscapes and creations/artifacts of children's play. Now I have a way of describing the activity and encouraging others to explore and enjoy children's play in this way.

    You may already know the lovely children's book Roxaboxen (Alice ??/illustrated by Barbara Cooney) which describes the author's journey back to her childhood playspace and discovery of remnants of its use by generations of children.

    1. Thank you Peter - we are both obviously play detectives! I don't know the book you mention but will certainly go and find it now. I am also fascinated to find evidence of previous play - usually evidence of rope swings ...tattered bits of rope hanging from the same branch!

  6. Just come across this through pinterest. I'm trying to develop our school garden in Wales and love all your ideas. Thank you so much for sharing. I'll keep looking for more ideas!

    1. Good luck with your playground development - from my experience the most creative play happens where there is sufficient time and loose materials rather than an expensive manufactured playground.

  7. I'm in Newcastle also and I am on the P&C committee at Dudley School. At Dudley we have wonderful grounds for sport and also some great fixed play equipment but although we border the National Park, it's out of bounds at lunch time and we don't have any natural or creative play gardens. There is a group of teachers and parents really keen to create one, we would absolutely love your input if you have any time to spare. Thanks
    Kathy Sloss

    1. Kathryn, Dudley is in the most beautiful location and it would be great if the children had access to some of the beautiful natural environments. I would be very happy to come and look at your space and give you some feedback. Please send me an e-mail at my work address