Play Well review

4 out of 5 stars
Play Well review
Arts and Crafts at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground, London, Mark Neville, 2011

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Remember when going out to play was a legitimate part of your day? Not just legit, but the best part? Well, the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition takes playing seriously. Not so seriously that it kicks the fun out of it, but seriously enough to make a strong case for why playing is – wait for it – fundamental to good child development (yeah, take that Protestant work ethic, up yours increased homework hours).

The show starts with a section full of documentation on the great minds who realised children should be seen and heard playing merrily. People like Friedrich Froebel, inventor of the kindergarten, and Loris Malaguzzi, pioneer of the Reggio Emilia Approach, which encourages imagination and experimental learning.

It then moves on to how toys and games reflect society (Barbie, unsurprisingly, comes off badly) and sometimes shape it for the better, like the Toys Like Me range featuring dolls who happen to have disabilities, but not as the centrepiece of their stories.

We then get adventure playgrounds, outdoor ‘roaming’ areas and finally, the digital revolution, all told through photos, videos, diagrams, letters and, crucially, a soft play area filled with abstract plasticky blobs. The benefits of play, especially outdoor unstructured play, are clearly presented but on the whole the show avoids pushing a doom and gloom narrative of ‘and now we all play videogames and die young, fat and depressed’.

It’s also peppered with unexpectedly fascinating tidbits. Like the small display linking kindergarten education and the Bauhaus art movement. Or the model showing how play helps displaced children deal with trauma. Or artist Ryan Gander’s marble sculpture based on his daughter’s sheet den. Or the very friendly ephalump with a slightly wonky head, bless him.

Because that’s also what the show does to you: rings the neurological doorbell that makes it almost impossible not to hug the teddy, pick up the coloured sticks, build something with Lego and climb onto the tyre swing. It proves, really, how we don’t have to teach ourselves to play but that we do, sadly, teach ourselves not to.

By: Rosemary Waugh


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