When we look at children’s play we almost take creativity and imagination for granted. Play has its own place in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in Article 31. It is seen as important for children’s development and socialization skills and so we aim to give them places to play. But children also use physical and imaginary spaces outside of those that are deliberately created for them, playing using what and who they find around them.

Nursery rhymes, where characters meet and interact, allow children to create narratives where unlikely pairings, adventures and violence all occur. Separate from reality, they encourage children to shape stories in the safety of their imagination, and give them the foundation to explore and articulate worlds which excite them. These worlds can continue to fascinate well into adulthood and inform creativity endlessly. Paula Rego and Peter Blake recognize the importance of nursery rhymes to understanding children and childhood and have repeatedly worked with them in their artwork.

Yet although the desire to play can be seen as innate, there are still a number of children who do not get that right. Their play is questioned, interrupted and neglected. How do we create safe spaces for children that allow them the freedom to play and develop? We create spaces that minimize the risks they can take – they are wrapped in our concern for their safety and their play is couched in rules and regulations.

detail from Attention!© and courtesy of the artists and Kendall Koppe

This idea is developed in two works by Corin Sworn. Faktura flits between documentary and animation. The documentary explores an adventure playground in Berlin, Germany, which allows children to create the environments they play in. The animations, which interrupt this documentary, are experiments using shapes from a children’s pattern book. Attention!, which Sworn developed with Nicolas Party and Ciara Phillips, has taken its inspiration from safety books from the 1980s and questions the restrictions we are putting on play.

As children grow into young people they test and stretch the limits of play, whilst their actions are judged by those who seek to control it. This is observed in the work of Corin Sworn and Graham Fagen. In After School Special Sworn looks at how young people are portrayed. She examines depictions of ineffectual youths in Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film Over the Edge and re-edits extracts from it. Using a new script, actors dub over the original voices to create a critique of the promoted potential and ideal of the incorporated towns where the characters lived. In Fagen’s work Pish Balloon the more risky play of teenagers has been reduced to a beautiful photograph of an object created by the teenagers and text clinically describing the play act. It is as if it has been documented and collected by a judgemental outsider. This is reminiscent of how objects from colonized countries were collected and documented, removed from a context where they had cultural significance by people with so-called superior knowledge.


As we grow older how we play, who we play with and where we play becomes less spontaneous. Questions arise about what is appropriate play for what age: play can be seen as time wasting, a strange occupation and not something you can just take part in. It becomes harder to define. There are easily recognizable public play spaces for children, but such spaces for adults are less obvious. The project Women@Play was developed as part of the Gallery of Modern Art’s 2004/5 programme exploring issues related to violence against women. The women involved in the project at the Red Road Women’s Centre began to explore the right to play. Each week the women created new play happenings – challenging the conventions of who played in the neglected and damaged space outside the centre. Through the simple and sometimes forgotten act of play, the women bonded and began to work together as a collective to explore the art of creative play.

Reclaiming the right to play as an adult is important; the thought of losing the ability to play is hard to accept. This does not necessarily mean just having the physical space in which to play, but also the sense of freedom that allows for play. This is addressed by the work of Andy Goldsworthy and that of David Sherry. Both artists play and are playful in what they present. Goldsworthy takes the simple play act of throwing sticks to create his work. Sherry looks at the world around us and develops new work out of the mundane, the everyday and just what is there. As a child might, he develops play out of what he happens to comes across. He asks us to be part of that, to reflect on it and to engage with it.

There is also the creative side of play. The sense of being able to create is a play act in itself. Sometimes when you look at the way an artist works, the importance to the artist of creative possibilities to play with is apparent. Eduardo Paolozzi collected and appropriated images widely – he revelled in the collision of different icons from all over the world with mass-produced images, and brought them together in his work.

Yet am I right in saying that adults don’t play? What is our playground? What if we see galleries, our built environments and technology as playgrounds? Children don’t just play in the designated spaces – they play in the spaces in-between and they absorb all sorts of ideas into their logic and imaginary worlds. Technology has created a new wealth of virtual play spaces, both for our physical play through the games console Wii and intellectually through online computer games such as Second Life and mobile phone applications like Foursquare. Maybe it’s just that the boundaries of play spaces are being blurred naturally as our society and technology develops, and that the blueprint is never really going to exist but the play possibilities will.

Social Inclusion Coordinator