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CYC-Online 97 FEBRUARY 2007
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A stimulating and responsive environment

Christopher Beedell

In his writing on the provision for children's needs, Beedell includes “play opportunities appropriate to chronological age and developmental stage.”

Play must be interpreted here in a wider sense than “what small children do”. There are forms of play appropriate to all ages. The mooning, sporadic expeditions and withdrawals of the young adolescent are just as specific and important a form of play as the stereotyped and rather false picture of the beefy toddler purposefully constructing with his specially-designed play bricks (he is more likely to be clattering about with saucepan lids). For the healthy older adolescent there can be no dodging the fact that a good deal of the play that interests him or her will be sexual by-play with a marked physical component whether this is expressed in “mucking about”, public horse play, dancing, or “necking” (i.e., private love talk with sensual accompaniment).

Opportunity for play means free time and some free space and perhaps above all freedom from adults. Parents know how quickly play can be blighted by their paying attention to it. Residential staff sometimes see so little unsupervised play that they do not realize what is being suppressed by their very presence. This does not mean that adults should not be available; small children will return at intervals from private play to check that they are, and adults can often be useful in various ways on the fringe of older children's play. It does mean that they ought to be “out of mind” for substantial periods if play that is likely to provide creative, though sometimes painful, learning is to develop. The great danger in residential units is that play is constricted into “recreation” and ends up as fidgety groups of children and adults dutifully and cheerily-gloomily playing “Monopoly” or football.

It has to be recognized, too, that play is not all pleasant for all the participants “that quarrels and reconciliations are equally important “and that destructive and constructive elements are generally involved. Knocking the orange box to bits to get the wood to make something is often as satisfying (and indirectly instructive about the nature of materials) as whatever tottering construction may eventually be made of the pieces, or more likely planned and never made. In this respect the amount of time, space and material for play available for the child in his own home is often quite unrecognized by residential services. A child at home normally plays all over his own house and garden and in the street and local play patch. A unit of twenty children then, to provide equivalent space, logically needs the equivalent of six council houses and their gardens (all of this usable by the children) with some extra space so that they can get away from each other. Too much child-centredness or over-formalized adult responsibility within residential units all too easily squashes spontaneous play by rationing and limiting it to easily supervised situations. So space, materials, time and attitude of staff are all relevant to this problem.

The question of appropriateness of play opportunity to chronological age and developmental stage is not as simple as it seems. Fathers happily engrossed in their children's sand castles on the beach are a good demonstration of how play is a safe vehicle for temporary regression. In one sense, therefore, there is no such thing as play appropriate to a particular age; only social pressures which allow a grown man to do this on the beach but not in his front garden. These social pressures operate on children, too, who may want to appear to be playing fairly formal cricket rather than tip and run. One skill of the worker in this kind of situation is to gauge the social pressures and find ways of relieving them, or overtly meeting them while covertly bending the situation to provide a form of play which is appropriate to developmental stage. Again, appropriateness to developmental stage is not easy to specify and will vary widely from individual to individual. Many normal children continue to enjoy types of play which their contemporaries have grown out of, but they are not stuck at this stage, merely taking more time, and perhaps learning more from it. Some play appears in slightly different forms at different stages. Informal “drama” or charades can be socially acceptable ways of reliving some of the satisfactions of dressing up at the 4-8 year-old stage. In general, disturbed and deprived children will need play opportunities of a kind that would be roughly appropriate for younger children, though these may need to be sheltered from public gaze or superficially tricked out as being older age level play. Anti-social children will need a lot of opportunity for acting out their aggression and reaction to deprivation in safe settings. It sometimes happens that difficult children cannot play, or that if they do the games always break up and end in disaster. Where this is so, the answer is that enabling them to play adequately is one of the most urgent bits of therapy to be done and must be tackled by first finding very limited situations in which they can play without disruption and then gradually opening these out. There are useful discussions of play in residential units by Ingram (1961) and in the 1967 Annual Review of the Residential Child Care Association.

As they grow older, some but certainly not all, normal children formalize certain kinds of play into “hobbies” which they then carry on fairly deliberately over a period. So there should be provision for children to follow hobbies they have already developed, and for hobbies to grow up from all kinds of playful exploration. But the implied discipline which characterizes a hobby should come from the child and not from the adults, though they can help by showing interest at a growing point, by giving advice, and by making time, space and materials available. Residential units should not be tempted into over-emphasis on hobbies because they are more easily organized, less muddled and unpredictable, and show more obvious results than spontaneous play.

Younger children (from 2-10 or 12) play through imaginative use of materials: sand, water, bricks, toys, boxes and trundlers, dressing-up clothes, etc., etc. At the same time they gradually develop play with one another in very small groups of two or three. Older children, and adolescents, may still need some external objects as framework to structure their play: the rules of games, an impromptu dramatic production, building dens, records for listening and dancing, but more and more of this play is concerned with increasingly serious “play” with one another as persons.


Ingram, E. (1961). Play and leisure time in the children's home. Case Conference, VIII No.7.
Residential Child Care Association. Play in Child Care. Vol.XV

This feature: Extract from Beedell, C. (1970). Residential life with children. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.38-42

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