One of the things that stands out from the exhibition ‘Play Well’ at the Wellcome Collection is how children’s play has changed over the years. The ‘Right to Roam’ map shows how the geographical areas where four successive generations from one family in Sheffield were free to roam as 8-year old children has dramatically shrunk over the years, (the National Trust estimates a reduction of around 90%), while Bert Hardy’s photographs show post-war children in the Gorbals of Glasgow playing wherever they could including in the local cemetery which to them was just a green open space to explore, with lots of corners for hide and seek, and Ryan Gander celebrates those informal play houses we created as children with sheets and blankets stretched over tables, chairs and anything that we could requisition. In 2018, a report for the LEGO Foundation researched changing attitudes towards favourite play activities across the generations, with the older generation preferring physical/rough and tumble play and pretend play and the younger one preferring quiet games and digital play.
The second thing that stands out is the relationship between play and design, with the architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller for example being influenced by Frobel’s kindergarten philosophy, and how many designers, architects and engineers have enjoyed the building blocks of LEGO and Meccano, while LEGO itself created a limited series of iconic buildings which are now collectors items for adults (including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House).
Enlightened play-space provider Marjory Allen involved children in the design and construction of adventure playgrounds in deprived areas such as Lollard Street in London – something that we should encourage today within health and safety constraints -, and Wellcome itself partnered with the Argyle Primary School in Camden on the design of this exhibition ‘Play Well’ while Eve Rothschild introduced boys to the joy and exploration of art by breaking all the rules of a standard art gallery.
The importance of play for children has long been recognised. Play is international and needs to embrace diversity. The exhibition also shows the BRAC Play Lab at Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh and toys developed in partnership with #ToyLikeMe as part of their campaign for the toy industry to focus less on the perfect and beautiful, but on the real diversity of children, while activist artist Igor Vamos formed the Barbie Liberation Organisation, surgically wopping the voice boxes between Ken and Barbie in response to the introduction of a talking Barbie.
Lastly of course, there are digital games, here developed by 14-19 year old teenagers through the charity Rawminds.
Every organisation thinking of building a play space as part of a community or residential development should come and see this exhibition.