Let them play

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Recently a friend Angus Gorrie, a Playworker with a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences, had been posting on social media about his research in ‘Playwork’ and ‘Junkyard Playgrounds’ - sparking my interest in what this was exactly. It was around the same time that I had read “The Danish Way of Parenting” (Sandahl & Alexander, 2014). The parallel theories and origins of raising resilient and confident children in both mediums made me very curious. I wanted to understand how play was being analysed differently, and discovered - without too much digging - that there was a whole world of research papers, educator blogs, Play-workers and PhDs in ‘Playwork’.

The premise of this research and the book are both one and the same – concern regarding the decline in children and adolescents’ mental health in the developed world and a shift to relinquish adult-driven agendas and activities that enable independent and free play for children. This has been what I consider a critical message for myself as a parent to understand the current trajectory and also a fascinating insight into the magic of children’s culture.

I interviewed my friend, Gorrie, and learnt a great deal more about the nature of ‘Playwork’ and what it meant, and I discovered interestingly that most of the literature referenced was directed at educators and teachers. Why don’t more parents know about this?

Famous British researchers in children’s folklore and language, Peter Opie and Iona Opie so cleverly observed in one of their many publications:

Possibly because it is more difficult to find out about, let alone understand, we largely ignore the child-to-child complex, scarcely realising that however much children need looking after they are also people going about their own business within their own society, and are fully capable of occupying themselves under the jurisdiction of their own code.

(Opie & Opie, 1969).

Redefining Play

In my interview with Gorrie, he mused that play is viewed by our society as what happens when the important activities are not occurring. He says play is not the product but the motivation and can often be red-faced with gritted-teeth, hard, frustrating and not all smiles and happy as most of us generally view children’s play to be. The evolutionary and developmental importance of play is such that it is comparable to necessary milestones for survival such as walking and talking.

One of the Playworks Principles (2 of 8 principles) states that children’s play should ideally be “freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated” (Cymru, 2020). The idea of a “Junkyard playground” was first borne from Danish landscape architect Carl Theodore Sørenson who noticed children were playing anywhere but playgrounds. He noticed they were choosing instead to play in bombed out buildings in Copenhagen after the devastation of World War II.

Children’s play should ideally be “freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.

(Cymru, 2020)

The view that most adults have of a junkyard covered in old tyres and loose mechanical parts is a chaotic one, yet the research demonstrates that children view this type of environment as an opportunity to build and create order. It enables a type of independent and free play that is not only good for creativity but imperative for the developing brain of a child or young person.

A play environment that is clean, orderly and sterile can be intimidating for a child who doesn’t know where to start or what they are allowed to do, fearing getting into trouble for making a mess.

Risky Play

“…in the name of safety, we have deprived children of the time and freedom they need to educate themselves through their own means” (Gray, 2013). Peter Gray writes in his book “Free to Learn” that a decline in risk associated with play has been proven over decades to be correlated with a steady rise in childhood and adolescent anxiety and depression rates. Adult-driven agendas and supervision has superseded the innate need for children’s play.

This resonated with me since the amount of times in one day I tell my daughter to “be careful” is ludicrous, I should really just trust that she knows what she is doing the same way I trust her when she is climbing ropes in the playground (a favourite activity). If I were to show my daughter that I was concerned about her falling or slipping - she would hesitate, be fearful and slip. This same analogy applies to my parenting of my daughters as a whole.

Safety is paramount to me in raising my girls, but if I don’t allow my girls to take some risks – how can they protect themselves if they think the world is a gigantic cushion that will catch them when they fall? Sadly, this is where I admit that their capabilities outshine my expectations of them.

On a recent play date with some other children, I observed how my young daughter and her friends would leave the playground and scamper through the trees, picking up leaves and rocks in a gulley – directly next to a built playground with slides, swings, a fort and bridges. The majority of their time was spent walking up and down this gulley, peacefully and introspectively discovering things on the ground (which of course terrified me).

Normally I would shout out lots of orders and put a time limit on being in this ‘scary gulley’, but this time - I didn’t pull my daughter out of the gulley or tell her to be careful or scare her into thinking about snakes and spiders. This time, with great difficulty in letting go – I allowed her to explore her surroundings.

It was one of the most relaxed play dates I have been on and I realised how much of my parenting choices were driven by fear and how much I could truly hold back my daughter from making choices of her own.

Problem-Solving, Negotiation and Compromise

According to Gorrie’s research in play, children will play on the precipice of their capabilities and will rarely present problems they cannot solve themselves. He highlighted that tantrums often occurred due to the proximity of adults when children were playing together.

I began, at that point of our conversation to understand the truth in this – that the “dobbing” that was occurring on some of my daughters’ play dates was simply because I was in the same room as the children. Whereas, at a contrast and for the most part, quiet and creative play was occurring as I was sitting walls apart having a hot drink and a conversation with the other parent.

The idea of not being present and involved or facilitating play with my children and their friends has made me feel absent and guilty of neglect – so this new information has been really quite relieving and also enlightening to me!

External and Internal Locus of Control

The books I have read and my conversation with Gorrie centres around confident and resilient children having a strong internal locus of control. So, what is this exactly and why is it important?

An external locus of control means that you feel that your destiny is chosen by someone else, you are a subjection to the world and the outlook is you have no control or choice. Your personal responsibility is externalised.

An internal locus of control means you are empowered to make your own decisions. Emotional regulation and the outlook on the world are within your choice and control. Your personal responsibility is internalised.

These terms are repeatedly referenced in the literature I have read as being linked to play and how it can scale personal responsibility and confidence up or down (Sandahl & Alexander, 2014) (Gray, 2013). There is strong evidence in the longitudinal child psychological studies over several decades referenced in Gray’s book demonstrating that a strong internal locus of control is found in a child that plays freely and independently.

The message

Trust in play. Play is an evolutionary process that has guided and taught our children for tens of thousands of years. To be a trustful parent is not to be a negligent one and enables exploration, imagination and creativity. Gray writes that trustful parenting sends this message from parent to child - “You are competent…You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them…We are with you, not against you” (Gray, 2013).

Wait to be invited, let children lead and choose the narrative as adults do not set the rules in play. Actively seek opportunities for your children to play with other children in mixed age groups who can teach leadership, nurturing and creativity between their ages. Conflict can be borne from the close availability of adults to come in and solve problems. Problem solving, negotiation and compromise can be learnt in play. It is the patient reflection of life itself being processed, learnt and understood through children’s play.


Cymru, P. W. (2020). The Playwork Principles. Retrieved from playwales.org.uk.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.

Opie & Opie, P. I. (1969). Children's Games in Street and Playground. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sandahl & Alexander, J. I. (2014). The Danish Way of Parenting. London: Piatkus.

Sarah Do is a passionate Mummy of two beautiful little girls who resides in the inner South Brisbane. She parents with the goal of raising independent, loyal and emotionally intelligent girls. An introspective writer, she draws from her life experiences of travel, work, hardships, athleticism and being the daughter of mental health workers. But it’s not all serious - backyard sing-offs, dance parties and a lot of humble pie makes Sarah a relatable Mummy and a warm-hearted writer.