Change that leads to better lives

Remarkably Capable, Creative Children

This Learning disability Week’s theme is creativity. We asked our new Evaluation Manager, Dr Karen McInnes, to talk about the value of play and playfulness and its role in communicating and learning creatively.


As an educator, researcher and play therapist, I love play! When I started training as a teacher, I was very quickly drawn to teaching young children and was one of the few students to complete a final teaching practice in a nursery class. Watching young children play and seeing the learning and enjoyment they gained from it was eye opening. Since then, I have spent most of my working life teaching and researching children, play and playfulness and taking a slight detour to train as a play therapist along the way.

Play is often not taken seriously, especially as an area of research. It is a simple activity, one that is often taken for granted, but all children can do it, in some form, even if we do not recognise it as play. It is not just about the observable act of play but is also about how it makes us feel and the behaviours that go with it, otherwise known as playfulness. As a teacher I learnt that it was a way to enable children to learn, and as a play therapist I learnt that it was also an alternative way for children to communicate with us, and particularly valuable for nonverbal communicators of any age. Combining both these approaches to view and understand play and using them in my research and writing has been incredibly powerful. Through researching and understanding the child’s view of play, I was able to create learning situations which children saw as play.

But what have I learnt? Playing with children, or in fact anyone, requires us to be respectful and non-judgmental. Children are remarkably capable, creative and imaginative in their play if we let them. They need to be in control of their play and have time; it is not a rushed activity, they need to fully immerse themselves in the worlds they create. We as adults and partners in their play need to observe and learn from them – what do they like playing with? How do they like to play? When do they want us to play? We can support and facilitate the play, but the choice is theirs as to what, how and when. We can join in with their play, but on their terms. We need to follow their lead and be true partners in their play. We need to allow and enable creativity and imagination and we need to let them take risks which can be hard, but all children can take risks.

Most importantly, we need to value the process of play, not the end product. For some children, this process may be very messy, I always enjoyed that, but some children do not like mess and that needs to be understood and respected. Play can also occur anywhere, within safe boundaries.

Overall, play is inclusive; it is for all children. It is up to us as play partners, in whatever capacity, to recognise, understand and respond to children’s non-verbal and verbal communications. We need to support, facilitate and join in with their play, but on their terms. To do this we need to find the child in ourselves and for us to be playful. I have spent time with students, educators and play therapists discussing and trying to develop our own playfulness, it is an area ripe for research., Ultimately, play and playfulness are beneficial, not only for all children but, for all of us enabling us to enjoy life and experience greater wellbeing.

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