Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

Play is a Child’s Work - or is it

I can see the reasoning behind saying play is the child’s equivalent of work … but it isn’t, and saying it is doesn’t help

Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Play is a child’s work’?

It is a very well-known, well-intended saying that is often cited as a quotation in writings about children’s play. But what does it actually mean, where did it come from and does it help?

As a concept it seems to make sense at first glance because adults, generally speaking, take the consequences of their work and their profession seriously and although they might also take their recreation and leisure pursuits seriously as well, work and leisure are somehow different – especially in the eyes of other people. If, therefore, we want to persuade ‘other’ people to take children’s play seriously then the idea is that maybe we should equate work and the play of children together. That’s how most people seem to understand the phrase.

But I think it misses the point

The concept is often credited as being a relatively modern idea that has come from a desire to elevate the importance of play as learning and thus as being something valid in kindergartens and school classrooms.

Many people also believe that the idea can be credited to a specific individual but pinning down quite who that person might be may be more challenging than expected. But let’s try.

I’ve seen it written that the originator is the American educator and TV host Fred Rogers (1928-2003) who said in his book You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” His name on this quotation seems to rule the internet.

It’s a brave person that challenges ideas relating to the great Mister Rogers but it appears that he was repeating an already established concept rather than originating it, and yet we find the above quotation as evidence that he is the originator of this idea in many books and webpages.

In recent decades a number of other relatively modern writers have been credited with this quote too but if we push back a little further in time the idea is still there. If we give it, say, 100 years or so we find the German neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) credited with the concept which some people feel is linked with his idea that human life is made up of an interweaved combination of work, love and play.

photo: time to play spot the theorist

There are yet others who quote Jean Piaget (1896-1980) the massively influential Swiss child psychologist as the originator, which might seem to make more sense than Freud because of his very explicit link with education and children. “Play is a child’s work” we see in meme’s across the internet with Piaget’s name alongside. But try and find the original quotation where he says that. Go on, try and find it.

Maybe it is not Piaget, then. Maybe he said it but not because he was personally originating this idea but instead was just quoting the Italian educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952). In fact, she is possibly the most often cited originator of the idea as, “She felt that children would instinctively rather choose to acquire knowledge than to engage in senseless play. Thus, when given the opportunity to choose the activity, what can be seen as play to some because of the freedom involved, is actually considered work for the child to Montessori” as it says on her entry on pgpedia.

Well, ok, maybe it’s not her idea either but instead it originates, as yet others claim, with her contemporary, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) the Austrian educationalist and philosopher and creator of the Waldorf-Steiner system of schooling. Steiner schools often quote him saying, “Play is the work of childhood. When children play they are experiencing the world with their entire being…” Just have a look at some of their school websites.

Are we getting closer?

No we are not. Both Montessori and Steiner are still well-known and significant figures in the field of early education largely because their respective philosophies have survived intact and there are still schools around the world that bear their name and follow their basic system of schooling. Yet they were both following in the footsteps of another – Frederick Fröbel (1792-1852) the acknowledged originator of the kindergarten concept. Not surprisingly he too is often credited with creating the concept of play-equals-work saying, “The play of children is not recreation; it means earnest work.”

Except he didn’t originate the idea.

Surely it must have been Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) of whom Montessori, Steiner and Fröbel were followers and advocates. Guess what? Not surprisingly Pestalozzi is sometimes named as the originator. His famous book (actually a collection of letters) How Gertrude Teaches her Children launched the career of many an early education pioneer around the whole world and so he seems to have as good a reputation as any to have coined a phrase that has survived through generations of playing children. And yet he very rarely mentions ‘play’ specifically in his writing. Again, go and have a look at what he wrote.

photo: Rousseau ... everything comes back to Rousseau

It does not end there, though. We have to go further back still to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) the Swiss-French philosopher (of whom I remember lecturers in my early university days saying, ‘it all comes back to Rousseau in the end, you know, absolutely everything comes back to Rousseau’).

In his book Emile, Rousseau says, “Work and play are alike to him; his plays are his occupations, and he sees no difference between the two”. Seems compelling evidence. Until we realise that Rousseau was heavily influenced by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) and we have to look to him before we start to get anywhere near the source of this concept.

And there we hit a problem. Locke would not have agreed with the play-equals-work analogy. As a staunch advocate that ‘liberty’ in all forms of life, including education and in children’s play, is essential, Locke wrote specifically about work and play saying in his essay, Some thoughts on education,

"Children should not have any thing like work, or serious, laid on them; neither their minds, nor bodies will bear it. It injures their healths; and their being forced and tied down to their books in an age at enmity with all such restraint, has, I doubt not, been the reason, why a great many have hated books and learning all their lives after. ’Tis like a surfeit, that leaves an aversion behind not to be removed."

The Work Ethic

Ah. The trail seems to have gone cold, at least in the naming of a single originator. Or maybe not. Because there is a single, named person who we really could accredit this idea to, albeit indirectly. And that is John Calvin (1509-1564) the originator of the branch of Christianity that bears his name.  

Locke and Rousseau faced the prevailing 17th century idea of the Protestant, or more accurately Calvinistic, work ethic of their day – the idea abounded that success is earned by hard work and that any diversion from that should be discouraged. Frivolity and idleness were the roots of damnation and were thus to be avoided at all costs; work, on the other hand, was the root of salvation into the next life. This is a central tenet of Calvinism. It means, basically, that play-equals-work is about saving souls.

Locke rejected this idea and perhaps not insignificantly also moved away from his early Calvinistic roots, though he was still heavily religious; Rousseau, despite also personally rejecting Calvinism, was clearly still influenced by some elements of it and so was attempting to justify an apparently negative and purposeless activity by giving it some positive purpose. It would appear that Calvinism is the start of a pattern, the effect of which can still be felt today.

photo: a pair john's - Calvin and Locke

As the modern-day play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015) points out in The Ambiguity of Play, “… the puritan ethic of play has been the strongest and most long lasting of all the rhetorics of play in the past four hundred years.” It survives to this day in the well-meaning idea that we justify children’s frivolous play-life by equating it with adult’s serious work-life. We see this as a positive thing but unfortunately what we are actually doing with this play-equals-work analogy is unconsciously promulgating the Calvinist idea that work is good and play is not.

Well ok, if we want to take this play-equals-work analogy seriously maybe we should go full blast at equating the two together: maybe we should take a lesson from the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858) who campaigned for a maximum working week for British workers in the early 19th century coining the slogan, “Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest” and from whom we get our modern version of the working week and contracted working conditions.

Maybe, if we really see play as the work of children, we should look at it in the same way and protect it in the same way. Maybe we should guarantee a maximum time in which they should be playing – not as recreation but in addition to their recreation and rest – ‘Eight hours’ playing, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest’. Maybe we should enshrine that in a written contract and, dare I say it, even pay them a fair wage for it.

Perhaps adults would then begin to take time for playing seriously because a contract and pay really does equal work. To do anything less seems very unfair. And yet for many I suspect that this, the logical conclusion of the play-equals-work analogy, is a step too far.

It doesn't help

I can see the reasoning behind saying play is the child’s equivalent of work … but it isn’t, and saying it is doesn’t help. It’s a distraction. It is belittling play and giving in to the adult world idea that play is only of worth because it has product, an end-result. If we want to hold up a quotation that mentions the words ‘play’ and ‘work’ together I think we would be much better suited to choose one by the American writer, Mark Twain (1835-1910) who wrote in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

The very fact that children spend so much energy and time on a behavior that has no overt obligation to doing it is the very thing that makes it so important and the very reason that should be uppermost in our minds whilst we advocate for it.

Marc Armitage

What do you think about this play-equals-work analogy? Is it helpful? Why do you think this idea has pesisted so long?

This essay is available for download as a PDF document [here]

Tina Green says:
At last. Thank you Marc. Many moons ago I used to coin this phrase - it would help to explain to adults in non-child professions, or those in govt in child policy making positions, how impt play is to children; 'work' they could understand. However it ends up leading to total misunderstanding about play and how impt it is, how 'pointless' it may be, how joyful it should be, how so absolutely like work it is not. There is so much adult interpretation, even unfortunately amongst child play advocates, on what child's play should be, and its time that stopped. In my opinion, as a practitioner in the child's play field for 25 years we need to let them be, let them get on with it, however, wherever, doing whatever they want.
marc says:
Thank you, Tina. And I agree totally with your comment about the misunderstandings this idea creates. ~Marc
Bec Hey says:
You delivered on your promise of being "meaty"! Interesting reading, thanks Marc :)
I agree that the "play as work" analogy seems a pretty convenient way of giving "value" to play. Reminds me of The Productivity commission report into childcare. Only by rationalising Early Childhood Education against perceived economic value, is it deemed worthy of govt investment.
Tracey Foster says:
That's a timely post as I consider enrolling my son in a Montessori school. Thank you
Carol Booth says:
Hmmm play is a child's, when I go off to work while I do enjoy some creative license there is still the expectation that I will still achieve XYZ in a reasonable amount of time. So to say this about a child's play would project the expectation of "stuff" being achieved whereas children are free during their play to explore/experiment/research...there's more freedom attached to the term play so let's celebrate the word play and use it without having to justify it by alluding to it being "work"!
Tom Shea says:
Interesting Marc. Have always looked at it the other way - take the definition of WORK "activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result" and play gets pretty close to that as well. I think we need to look at how we develop away from an old era that prescribes "work" as a way of generating money. While 'labour' developed as a way of whipping people into forced tasks that earns a few major amounts at the sufferance of the 'workers' (and still does) we need to change the now groaning 'education system' away from creating clones to a generation or two that can develop in an environment where they can determine their own road - choosing their own paths - where the outcome is happiness and health and not focussed on earning. Look nearer to home at A S Neil and Summerhill in the early days. Freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and not outcome based learning from 0-16... While I see that comparing play to the modern financially motivated greed called work is not useful, to change work through providing opportunities for real play (as opposed to playtime and play equipment and 'focussed play') is the answer and THAT play, in both animals and humans, is very much about learning through doing - and that is happy, contented focussed opportunities to 'work'. Please lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater - let's change the water.... Tx
marc says:
@Tom Shea ..

Thanks for your comments, Tom. You raise an interesting counter point that would be interesting for people to build on. The crux may be, as you suggest, in varying definitions.

Let's see how the discussion progresses ... In the mean time I would suggest you may be interested in the fourth piece that will be appearing in a few weeks which addresses one of the very points you raise. ~Marc
Wendy Russell says:
Great opening piece, thanks Marc. I agree that the rationale for calling play child's work was probably an attempt to give it some status in a work ethic culture, and totally misses the point. I also think there are problems associated with setting work and play up as opposites, or even as things that can be put into time and space bound categories. I have playful moments at work in amongst the task-focused labour, and there are moments in my designated 'playtime' that feel like work (trying to learn the tricky bits on my sax).
Doug Fargher says:
Advocates of play will continue to use the argument when 'work' has a higher societal value than 'play'.
That the argument has prevailed with its long history could acknowledge it's relative but incomplete success.
"The best education should be more like play than work" from Socrates via Plato may well make a better meme.
Lisa James says:
After I read your article, it prompted me to observe a group of children. Today, during my 7 and 8 year old's dance concert, a group of girls quietly slipped out the door and I found them in what I thought was a sand pit, but was lots of little pebbles. What are you doing? I asked. They informed me 'they were being mermaids, and it felt really tickly on their feet.' They had been playing there quietly for over 45 minutes.
I asked a 10 year old in the group 'why do you like doing this, and how is it different to sitting at a desk at school and writing?
Her response was gold! She said,
'I feel free, there are no rules, and I can use my imagination.'

I do think 'work' denotes some type of 'meausureable outcome', whereas play is open ended. Lots of learning goes on during play, but it is different and unique for each individual child.
Dave Elder says:
Great post Marc. The idea of play being children's work says more about adults than children. Adults just can't stop themselves trying to mould children in their own likeness. Alison Gopnik has expressed this well in the contrast she draws between 'parenting' styles, the Gardener versus the Carpenter. It is part of the process of 'domesticating' children into the compliant worker of tomorrow. Children explore the world and try to understand and make sense of it by acting in the world and thinking about things. In that sense both play and work are completely inadequate terms to express what it is to be a young human being.
Valerie Gaynor says:
Great article and thank you . I don't believe that " play is work of the child" I believe that play is play . I often hear the children in our playbased preschool bemoan the fact that we are going to an activity ! The activity might be art , craft, etc . We the adult are interrupting the play and we need to mindful of this and allow the learning to happen during the play .
I am reminded of tech companies like Facebook and Google , who are created large adult playspaces in order to encourage creativity . Well I think we need to stop killing the creativity at an early age and allow the wonderful free open-ended play to happen more . It would mean a huge overhaul of education around the world , but imagine the benefits ?
Cecile says:
Its great to see Maria Montessori mentioned here with Piaget and Frobel who were working at the same time, as well as Pestalozzi and Rouseau who influenced her work. To clarify her position on play as work is very important. She observed that children loved to work, the kind of work that involved their whole personality and had some constructive benefit to the childs development. No product is necessary but enjoyment in performing it is. "But it is work and not play...I have to defend myself against those who say that my method is play-based." Montessori saw play as leisure and recreation. Her great observation was that children love to work too. Work is self directed constructivist style learning and if children aren't doing this "then you will certainly see them playing in one way or another, but not working in the sense in which Montessori defines the activity." (Standing. 1957, Maria Montessori Her work and her Life). My understanding from Montessori training is that work and play are very distinct and important. The way work is offered to children, and adult expectations should be child centred and playful.
Kelley Knight says:
A measurable outcome. In three words Lisa you hit the nail on the head! As a Montessori teacher this is the difference that I see- children have no desire for a measurable outcome. They are exploring and collecting (both information and actual bits of things- paper rocks etc.) This exploration and testing is the work that is being discussed. They are interested in what will happen when... they are interested in discovery. They want to know real things and have a real affect on their world. They want to know they are safe to do this exploring and discovery. We must be stewards of the sacred space of early childhood and Lillie the child the freedom to explore and discover the world without the blaring noises of our outside world, protect them as much as we can. One of the main tenets of Montessori education is choice. It is allowing the child to decide and settle into their own pursuits- this is where the deepest learning comes from.
Kelley Knight says:
I think perhaps what Dr. Montessori might say is that the child's body is obliged to learn.
Helen Rubin says:
Fascinating post and discussion. I love the research aspect especially as I trained in the UK as a nursery/infant teacher and all these philosophies were part of our reading. Truly understanding play didn't come until I had my children and later observed other people's children in my care in various environments like my home, their home, group care.

Respectfully - the word is 'tenet' not tenant (Paragraph starting with 'Locke and Rousseau'.
Tim Gill says:
Engaging piece Marc, and I appreciated the scholarship. I am interested in the ways that play opportunities make a difference in children's lives (a topic for another time). But I have never found the play/work analogy very compelling or insightful. Equating the two is just a category error, and I don't see any strong parallels either.
Alison Goguelin says:
Ah Marc, “thinking” words indeed.
The saying ‘Play is a child’s work’ is commonly used with little thought attached; I was glad to have the opportunity to think about what this really means to me.
This gives me a view of children undertaking a task or a job for which a type of remuneration should be awarded; far removed from the reality of play being freely chosen and intrinsically driven. Are children told to play? And when they are, what are the expectations of the adult? Certainly in many classrooms children are encouraged to learn through play and to reach a desired outcome, set by an adult.
Great to read and track back through the ages of theorists and thank you for providing the John Locke quote; being reminded of this makes sense of the many thoughts I have running through my head of the school entry age and all the expectations that come with it.
Play being individual to each and every child adult and animal, as each are unique and different from each other. Freedom to choose as my thoughts guide me, making sense of my environment and the world around me, learning through doing, no outcomes unless they are my own, decided and guided through problem solving (my own). Play is not the work of a child. Play is the sense of a child.
Andrea Lulka says:
Fascinating piece. Truly. I love seeing the history of an idea come to life. I agree that equating play and work without actually defining each of them - as a superficial trope - is not helpful to adults involved with children. A deeper understanding is most definitely called for. I am new to your blog (referred to through Montessori circles, because we get really excited whenever anyone outside of Montessori circles mentions Dr. Montessori!) and intrigued to learn more now about Playwork, which is new to me.

I wonder if you might be interested in how Dr. Montessori uses the term "work" - her specialized use of common language is, in my opinion, one of the reasons her ideas are so often misunderstood and misapplied. I think understanding her use of the term "work" is essential to understanding why she would say that play is the work of the child.

In "The Secret of Childhood" Dr. Montessori explores two kinds of work - adult work, and child work. The adult's work is, she says, task oriented, socially prescribed and carried on as part of a collective. It has a palpable end. It requires use of intelligence and external efforts to achieve an outcome or create a product. A child's work, on the other hand is the very act of self-construction: "A child's labour is different from, and we might say, even opposed to that of an adult. It is an unconscious labour brought about by a spiritual energy in the process of developing." She talks about this work as being achievable only when children are free of adult control, about the work happening through child-led interactions with the environment... "A child gains experience through exercise and movement. He coordinates his own movements and records the emotions he experiences in coming into contact with the external world. These help to mold his intelligence [intelligence is another word Dr. Montessori uses differently - it includes emotional, physical as well as motivation and so on]. He laboriously learns to speak by listening attentively and making those initial efforts which are possible for him alone, and with tireless efforts he succeeds in learning how to stand erect and run about." So for her, a child's work is akin to the work of a fern unfurling or a seed sprouting - it is a natural process which we can nurture and guide, but it is an internal, self-guided, self-propelled process that takes place in concert with the elements present in the environment, and one which follows the laws of nature, not the laws of humanity.

Seen in that light, and considering that play is the means through which children develop their very selves, then yes, play really is the work of the child...

Thank-you for your thoughtful exploration!
Matt Bronsil says:
Since the child's work is to construct himself, why would you not see play as part of that work? I think the more we see about play, the more we see it has a huge impact on the child's construction of his lifelong personality. On that point, I disagree completely and think play is work.
marc says:
@Helen Rubin ...

Thanks for pointing out he typo, Helen ... much appreciated. ~Marc
Lisa James says:
This is very thought provoking and had me thinking on and off all week. My reflection is going to be somewhat personal (and not academic) but is helping me to differentiate between the way our modern world interprets or views 'work'.
If we have freedom in what we can do, be it either adult work/adult play, or child work/child's play, the key is the ability to choose and have an element of control over what what we are doing/pursuing. I've enjoyed thinking about this topic over the week, therefore its allowed my brain time and space and genuine interest to think and write, whereas if you 'set a dead line' and expectation that I submit a '1000 word essay' to you by this Friday, I'd probably feel a little stressed, and the joy would be removed somewhat from the task....
I think work tends to denote 'elements of drudgery and hardship', whereas play implies, 'fun, freedom.'
Time becomes a critical factor as well. Most paid work (or work needed to be 'performed in a school/early education setting with assessment tasks,) can pressure the human mind and rob a sense of freedom, hence it becomes 'duty'.
This line prompted much of these thoughts ' Mark Twain (1835-1910) who wrote in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

marc says:
@Matt Bronsil ..

You make an interesting point, Matt, about the child's work being 'to construct themselves' ... would you say a little more about this? define a little more perhaps? ~Marc
Dave Elder says:
I'm not sure I agree with this 'unfolding' fern metaphor. A fern will always be a fern but following on from Matt and Marc's comment a human being 'constructs themselves'. If you take an existentialist position, ther is no such thing as human nature, we each construct our own life through the choices we make and the actions we take. This is a day by day, minute by minute task. It is the essence of freedom.
In the case of children we are always seeking to 'mould' them in some way, and this is one of the problems I have with Montessori, it has a highly structured view of development. In fact most education policy on play may support 'self direction' and autonomy... choice in other words, but only insofar as it follows socially acceptable behaviour and has a direct relationship to policy objectives.
Jonathan Ray says:
I find the historical research about the quote itself very useful, as I have recently been down the same road. I find the suggestion that work provides a useful outcome and the implication that play does not flies in the face of recent developments of brain research. The concept that play is what children do that is useful and what provides developmental advantages and social skills is the crucial takeaway of this apocryphal quote, in my view.