First of a series on play memory exercises

I’m off again, tomorrow morning!  Back to the States.

While I’m flying, here is the first of a 3 part post on Play Memory Exercises.  I hope you enjoy, and let me know what you think!  Especially if you disagree.

Play memory exercises are used by a number of people working in play and playwork (and undoubtedly other fields too) to help adults remember their childhood experiences. These play memories can be elicited by simple questions, by prompted visualizations, and participants usually say that the process was far deeper – the memories far more powerful – than they would have anticipated.

Like many people, I was first introduced to the idea of play memories by Penny Wilson. She has used play memory exercises beautifully on many occasions – helping to awaken adult’s recollections of long-ago summers as well as their understanding of and sympathy for children.  I have seen her begin with play memories and and to start them people on a road to play advocacy. She has also completed a gorgeous photo and story series called “The String of Beads” that combines images with interviews with local older people to tell an oral play history of London’s East End (buy it here).

I have used versions of these exercises myself in a number of different settings, and agree that it’s powerful stuff. On an individual level, it is astonishing to see how people’s whole demeanors can change, how their expressions soften and they say the unlikeliest of things.

When it works

“I was bully,” one 92-year old Greek Cypriot woman said to me.

“You were bullied?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard correctly.

“No!” she said. “I bully, I take from other children. Dolls, oranges. I see and I take.” She reached out her arm, the hand thin and crabbed now, and snatched at the air.  She laughed and laughed at who she used to be. All around the table those who shared her sheltered accommodation rolled their eyes at one another, unsurprised.

Another time I began a short workshop with a play memories exercise, encouraging anyone who felt moved to share a memory of a place or beloved object with the group. It was stilted at first, then one man spoke very softly.

“I, I played by the railway tracks,” he said. “It was quiet there. It was mine.” He looked at me, with his eyes shining. The air in the centre of the circle became warm, and as people talked of their favorite spots, their games with pebbles and shells, we all joined together in seeing how all of us had shared similar experiences in very different countries. Afterwards, the man approached me.

“Thank you,” he said. “I have not thought of my childhood in so long, and remembering it was like a gift. A gift I did not know I possessed.”

When it doesn’t work

There were two younger members of that second circle who looked distinctly uncomfortable. Two people with very little to share. Many professionals in the field have told me the same – that the younger members of their classes and workshops simply didn’t play out as they did, didn’t play as freely, and don’t have the memories to draw upon.

This can be extremely problematic. Those afore-mentioned professionals have expressed to me their concern that adults who didn’t play as children will be less able to support children’s play – they’ll have a limited skill set for play, their own needs will be too great to be put aside during sessions. In truth, if we as a field say that play is vitally important, doesn’t it follow that practitioners who were denied those opportunities themselves will be less able?

Then there’s Brown and Lomax’s 1969 study linking play deprivation and serious violence. This study, or summaries of it, are read in playwork training sessions all over the UK.

Having a coffee with a new volunteer playworker, this study came up in conversation. The new volunteer was nervous, fiddling with her teaspoon and not meeting my eyes, but the words seemed to boil up from deep inside.

“I nearly quit the course,” she said. “I mean, I like playwork and all, but I thought it wouldn’t like me.”

“How come?” I asked. She twisted up one side of her mouth.

“I didn’t do all that,” she said. “Running about, getting into mischief. I was at home with my sisters, watching TV, looking after my Dad. And well, I’m not a serial killer.”

This made me reconsider some of my assumptions around these exercises. If I hadn’t had that year of living on a boat, what warm and powerful play memories would I be drawing upon? For many of us, remembering our childhoods is not a simple or comfortable process – many memories are opaque, troubling, or buried under sediment that requires time and gentleness to sift through. There was lots of wonderful stuff in my childhood, but I also remember strong feelings of frustration, of loss of power, of loneliness. Memories of those feelings are without question essential to my own playwork practice, but are not to be dragged up casually, or in an open forum with people I do not yet feel comfortable with. I am not alone in this, and when asked for a play memory in public I realized that I draw upon one or two that are safe, well-worn, outdoors and free – ones that feel appropriate to what is being asked of me.

I remembered how many of the older people I’d interviewed said how lovely it was to remember their childhoods – and how one of Penny’s interviewers had flatly refused to remember his. It seemed to me then that asking people to draw upon those memories so they would come to see the value of our position is irresponsible, perhaps even psychologically unscrupulous. At the same time, being interested in the children that we all were, the children that we will always carry with us, and gathering oral histories, reawakening our younger, playful selves – this is powerful, vital stuff.  How to reconcile these positions?

Practically speaking, play memory exercises are often our first port-of-call in building conversations around play – and this may be more exclusionary than we realize.

“Think of a favorite childhood place to play,” Tim Gill began when speaking to a crowd at Shoreditch House. “How many of you are remembering a place out of doors? Hands up.” And the hands went up. He asked how many of these had adults around, hands rose and fell. He did not ask whether those adults were parents or not (something I would have been interested in) but did mention the difference he sees when doing this exercise with groups of different ages. The younger the audience, the less likely it is that people will have played out of doors and away from the adult gaze.

How do we frame this discussion carefully, when telling someone that children today are being robbed of something that they were also robbed of, and that this loss has real and terrible consequences? It is delicate, to say the least.

On a site in East London, I was speaking with a parent who had come up to complain. She was furious with the children who played in front of her house, with us for attracting more children and then ‘rewarding’ them with string, tape and plastic tiger masks.

“All this, all this noise,” she said, spitting out the words. “All this mess. And they ride their bikes around and around, anywhere they please!”

“Where should they go?” I asked. “They cannot cross that busy road.”

“They should stop in,” she said. “Stay indoors, that’s fine. It was good enough for me. I had none of this,” she shook her hand in anger at the warm summer day, at the loops the children were making with the bicycles round and round the hollowed-out playground, at the bags of fabric and chalks that caring adults had brought and shared. “I had none of this, and I turned out alright!”


We need other ways, in addition to the elicitation of play memories, to help adults recognize the importance of play in the lives of children, and in their own. We need ways of doing this that do not highlight the lack, but instead help them to build upon what they have so that they, like the children we work with, can create the environments they need to play – and to play out, both physically and psychologically.

And that’s what I’ll be exploring in the next installment!

17 thoughts on “First of a series on play memory exercises

  1. I did interviews with as part of my dissertation and I tried out the whole play memory thing. It seems a good introduction to playwork, in any way shape or form so I justified it greatly as part of my investigations.

    In the ethics section of my report, I had to discuss the possibility of people getting distressed when talking about their childhoods. Thankfully, noone did, but a couple did get choked up, remembering people that were no longer around, or opportunities they no longer had.

    The feedback from participants at the end of the interview was that the play memory section really helped to bring them into the conversation, to really help them open up and understand more about me as the interviewer, to probe me and see how honest they could be, and give them an element of control over what could potentially be quite a sterile situation. The over-riding and almost surprising thought that participants had about the play memory section of the interview was that they learned a lot about themselves as well as about the interview topic itself.

    I think, whether people know it or not, play memories are important! They might not all be nice mind you – which is why people sometimes object to thinking about them – but they definitely important.

    1. Ooh – thank you for this! It’s great to hear this angle on it, and how it can fit within the interviewer-interviewee dynamic.

      Did you find any differences in age etc of the participants?

      1. Age wasn’t of great concern in my dissertation – it was varied. It did seem that they play memories of those who were younger were less free roaming, and more indoorsy, but that doesn’t mean their play was any less rich. Their play memories meant just as much to them, and over the course of the one-to-one interview, it was important to value the participant’s childhood just as much as the participant did. Which was a lot! It was fascinating!

      2. I think that’s a really good point, and one to be clear on when we’re doing these exercises. We don’t want our professional preferences for outdoorsy, roaming stuff to lead us to undervalue the indoor play – the magic of button boxes, blanket forts, and so on. As a field, we also often forget that girls have nearly always had less access to free roaming opportunities than boys have had (and that our field has a heavy historical weighting towards male researchers who roamed a LOT).

  2. I agree … I too use the play memories as a way-in to various issues. one of my favourite ways to do it is with a mixed group of adults and chidlren, asking the adults first to describe their ‘favourite place to play’ based on their childhood memories. Then I ask the children in the group the same question.

    Almost always they say exactly the same kind of places that the adults have said (I seem to find more positives when I do this than some others but then again I don’t usually persue the question of how often people visit this place in this context). The effect of adults seeing the current generation saying the same as them is not what they expect and it sets off a whole interesting and wide ranging discussion as a result.

    1. Oooh – I like hearing about mixed age conversations about this! And that children are getting to these places too.

      Are these groups generally parents and children, or professionals and their charges?

  3. I have used similar exercises with my playwork students who’s ages range from 17 to 64!! There can be huge differences, but it has taught me that anyone, no matter what their experience of play as a child can value childhood experences. We had the discussion about play memories with all the outoor, free stuff coming out & one 17 year old girl (rather bravely) said she couldn’t contribute because she wasn’t able to play out as a child. She said she was probably ‘over protected.’ The whole group looked at her with sorrow & began to console her. At this point I interrupted & pointed out that I didn’t think that all good play memories came from outdoor play & that we should value all our play memories as they are just as important wherever they took place. This girl then grinned widely & said “actually, my sister & me had this great game going with Barbie’s for months & months, we had such a brilliant time & put together pretty much a whole town for them. It was so much fun.” There was value in her play memories too, so I think when doing this exercise it’s important to stress that ANY play memory is valid. She may have been protected by being kept indoors for much of the time, but was still able to engage in freely chosen play. Ths means that she can still easily be a playworker because she still uderstands the value of being able to ‘choose’ how & what children play, indoors or out.xx

    1. That’s a really lovely story! I think that talking about what we had as children can bring up all sorts of things, and the conversations that come out of this can be so powerful on a team level. I bet the reaction of the others, and your affirmation, meant a great deal to her!

      And of course, talking about all of these different kinds of play help us be more prepared for children’s different experiences and expressions on site.

  4. I have had various experiences of using Play Memories Excercises – one particularly difficult one about memories of ‘favorite places to play’ that elicited a very open and honest, but harrowing response from one of the participants. It caused the whole group, including me and the person with the memory, to cry. This troubling memory turned out to be a useful, if difficult, opportunity for us all to consider the positive and negative aspects of adults’ involvement in children’s play. It was a particularly important lesson for me to learn about the power of Play Memories Excercises and the need to be very careful when using them.

    1. Oh goodness – that person was so brave to share those memories.

      They were very lucky that you could help hold the frame of the group conversation, so that the opportunities it held could be realized.

  5. Hi Morgan. A thought-provoking article. This line, in particular, resonated:

    It seemed to me then that asking people to draw upon those memories so they would come to see the value of our position is irresponsible.

    I have wondered for a while now if maybe playwork risks indoctrinating: indoctrination similar to the sometimes eschewed ‘everything that is not playwork thinking’ (e.g. as perceived in early years, teaching, social engineering agendas): perhaps playwork training forgets about that possible indoctrination process sometimes. See it MY way. Oh really?! Food for thought.

    On the subject of younger adults’ play memories possibly differing from older adults’ memories though, my own training work (and also work in teams in children’s provisions) does tend towards agreeing with this. I have known those in their early twenties and younger who expressed marked differences in what they were ‘allowed to do’ outside. Having said that, I personally spent much of the summer of 1976 in a stream/bush/rolling down a hill, but also spent much of my childhood tipping the sofas over to make tunnels, using the central heating grills as personal communication systems, and sliding down the stairs in a sleeping bag! Play happens indoors too.

    Thank you for the stimulation for thinking on play memory training, and also for stimulating thinking on play memories too. (Do my play memories just add to the playwork hegemony?)

    1. Ha – I don’t think they do automatically! 🙂

      I agree that we can sometimes get a bit didactic about loving “all things playwork”, and that this can get in the way of some potentially very important conversations. I’ve definitely struggled with this myself!

      I think it’s the same as we’re saying about play, that good stuff happens indoors as well as outdoors. Likewise with sport and education and other things that are “not play” as we use the term – they all have their place in children’s lives! The problem comes when they have lots of these at the expense of something else they need (like play, or splashing in mud).

  6. Hi Morgan

    I think this is such a good blog post! Thank you.

    Having had an interesting childhood myself, I tend to keep the exercise deliberately lighter touch and simply ask for “positive memories of play” – I don’t ask immediately for feedback but show the audience or participants paintings by children created in the three years and ask for them to compare their own discussions with their partner with the details of the paintings. This is so that I can emphasise the similarities between then and now as much as the differences.

    Working largely within the school sector I also “what people remember about their school days” and use this as a springboard into the idea that time outside tends to stick more in our memories and perhaps this can help make any learning more effective if we go outside and make it play-based. I’ve found both approaches tend to mitigate the issues around indoor v outdoor play

    1. Gosh – thank YOU!

      I like the idea of using children’s paintings as a springboard for discussion. There’s a resonance to them that really communicates play so well, and inspires it!

      It’s interesting as well asking people about their school days, because they will have almost definitely had those, probably with some huge similarities. They’re also widely understood as both fun and challenging, something that was powerful but mixed. I’d imagine that you get from great stories from that too!

      Any you feel like sharing?

      1. Oh blush! I’ve a bad memory for this sort of thing. Most are along similar lines: no adults around, an element of risk, being with friends, having adventures, making dens, playing games, etc. I’ll have to start making an active mental note of some decent ones – thanks for the push 🙂

  7. I have just sat planning an Outdoor Play for 0-3yrs training course with a colleague. We discussed the value of play memories but have been told by managers such exercises are old hat. Pondering this I searched the internet and came upon this blog. Thank you for all the interesting thoughts. Personally I feel play and childhood school memories are useful tools that must be handled sensitively. As practitioners involved with play we have responsibility for the well being of those we work with and must choose our ‘methods’ carefully.

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