In his latest book, Michael Rosen aims to encourage all of us to go on playing in whatever way we do, writes Helen O’Callaghan.
When Michael Rosen was a child, off camping with his family, he and his brother would flick aluminium plates to see who could get them the farthest.
“We invented Frisbees,” says the former children’s laureate and author of bestselling books including We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Quick Let’s Get Out of Here.
His latest book, Michael Rosen’s Book of Play, is subtitled Why Play Really Matters, and 101 Ways to Get More of it in Your Life.
His aim with the book is to encourage all of us to go on playing in whatever way we do — whether it’s word-play, make believe or even day-dreaming — and to see its importance.
“Play isn’t something trivial or useless. We think of it as something we do on the side, but it’s very important for our wellbeing, for our survival as the human race,” says Rosen.
He believes that open-ended play — where we improvise and through trial and error find what works — makes us flexible and adaptable.
“This improvisation is a transferable skill and very important. We will need lots of it in the future.”
Rosen recalls being inspired by Dan Dare, the science fiction hero in the Eagle comics he read as a boy.
“I remember going up in a space ship, travelling across millions of miles, away in space. I was really sitting in a coal bunker in a London suburb, but play takes us beyond the real world, transforms our world, and creates other worlds.”
Currently professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths University of London, he’s concerned that play is getting squeezed — by a school curriculum where every hour has to be accounted for in terms of learning objectives and outcomes, and by a kind of inherited belief that work is serious and play is a distraction.
He’s saddened on buses to see a singing child being told to be quiet by an adult, or by parents saying ‘don’t be silly’ to a child who has asked a question like what would happen if a tree had wings.
“I’m always very sad because the parent isn’t rolling with where the child’s thoughts and imagination are. There’s this idea that flexibility and an imaginative approach aren’t useful.
“We’re all dominated by a form of utilitarianism. Play appears to be not useful, not ultimately marketable, yet in society we’re desperately in need of people who are creative and inventive, who can fix the coffee-maker or come up with a new product.”
One of his favourite games to play with his youngest child is one-a-side football. He doesn’t mean an official rule-bound game of football.
He means “just finding ways of kicking a ball, wherever you are, inventing rules and using a shirt/stone/stick as a goal”.
Playing a game like this with your child teaches them so much.
“How do you decide what goal went in or out? Or was that a fair tackle? The adult cheats and the child sees and the adult says ‘I’m a grown-up, I can do that’, and there’s this analysis of right and wrong. There’s a flexibility to it and you’re developing a skill.”
He sees kids using the wall as a player or using a bollard to hold up one end of a skipping rope (“so you don’t waste a player”) and realises what they’re doing is accepting the restrictions of the place/situation they’re in and inventing rules to fit that environment.
“That’s the core of what good play is. It’s a high-level skill, taking an environment and creating very abstract rules about it.”
A child-at-play scenario that has stuck in his mind — and that he mentions in his new book — features a girl, 4, in a park playing on her own a game she’d invented.
“She was going round and round a very flat dome of stone on the path and she had invented a song, a ‘roundy-roundy’ song. She was creating a rhythm and she was exploring how if you skip or walk over a shape your body is changed.
Rosen doesn’t care how old someone is — they could be seven, 17, 70 or 170 (even the flight of fancy that lets him imagine a 170-year-old is evidence of a playful outlook he deems healthy and vital) — no one’s too old to play.
“In fact, I believe play is key to helping us develop and realise our full potential.”
Yet, the only place where he sees adults play like kids is on the beach.
“They’ll be chanting, singing ‘here we go dig, dig, digging’. They feel free to do it in holiday time, on the beach and with their kids.
“They think they’re playing with their child but they’re doing it for themselves. Grandparents are often the most easy at play — pretending ‘I’m a horse’. They wouldn’t do it if there were no kids around though.”
But what all of this shows, says Rosen, is that play is inside us all and well within our capacity to do.
Michael Rosen’s Book of Play, €20.99.