The changing state of play

During the 20th century, the concept of play blossomed as its creative and educational benefits were revealed. We talk to Shamita Sharmacharja, co-curator of Play Well, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, about its evolution

We have a tendency of thinking of play as something to engage in when the real work is done. Yet you only have to look to the animal kingdom to see how essential it is to our development and happiness. It turns out that both domestic and wild animals – chimps, elk, polar bears – devote time and energy to mucking about. In fact, the majority of the animal kingdom plays in some form, explains Shamita Sharmacharja, who co-curated the Wellcome Collection’s Play Well exhibition along with Emily Sargent. The show looks at the meaning and importance of play, and takes its title from the Dutch term ‘leg godt’ (meaning ‘play well’), from which Lego derives its name.

“It feels quite topical given what’s happening in the education system where attainment is being privileged over play, so there’s less and less play time,” explains Sharmacharja. Of course, play and education share a complicated relationship, where play time is perceived by some as a hurdle to education, and an essential factor in its success for others.

Early advocates of allowing children to express themselves and freely explore nature include author Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and later Friedrich Fröbel, who created the first ever kindergarten (‘garden of children’) in the mid-19th century. Though the now ubiquitous term has come to represent varying forms of early years education, a kindergarten would traditionally place play at the centre of its approach. Fröbel also devised toy-like educational materials known as ‘gifts’ as a way of using play to encourage development.