Play is what children do – Colin Ward and the Baining

I have heard Colin Ward credited with the phrase “play is what children do” – and if someone could forward the reference for that, I’d be thrilled!  Like so much of my professional training, I was told about it in a pub and wrote it down in my raggedy notebook.

It gets quoted pretty often, and these words have been running around my head for a couple of weeks now.  Play – both how we do it, and what we think of it – is central to our cultural expression and creation.  And this quote seems to suggest our society’s ambivalence towards play – you just have to tinker with the emphasis.

Play is what children DO:  Children play instinctively, intuitively.  It’s how they explore and expand their worlds, how they make sense and nonsense and new friends.  It’s natural, even beautiful – that is, if you like children.

Play is what CHILDREN do:  It’s okay, maybe even necessary in a developmental sort of way, but play is not for adults.  Ultimately play is not important, not like work, and should be put aside with other ‘childish things’.

Now – I’m not for a moment suggesting that Mr. Ward had the second emphasis in mind!  But I do think that for lots of people, including lots of playworkers, play in adulthood is something that gets neglected.  We sometimes forget to view adults (particularly if they are visiting our sites with complaints) with the same empathy we would if they were children.  It’s easy to respond with more anger, without framing their aggression or suspicion as expressions of their own play deprivation and jealousy.

In some cultures, play is viewed far more gloomily.

The Baining in Papua New Guinea have been described – surely unfairly! – as the “dullest culture on Earth”.  Check out this brief history of Western attempts to study them:

“Early in his career, in the 1920s, the famous British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months among them, until he finally left in frustration. He called them “unstudiable,” because of their reluctance to say anything interesting about their lives and their failure to exhibit much activity beyond the mundane routines of daily work, and he later wrote that they lived “a drab and colorless existence.” Forty years later, Jeremy Pool, a graduate student in anthropology, spent more than a year living among them in the attempt to develop a doctoral dissertation. He too found almost nothing interesting to say about the Baining, and the experience caused him to leave anthropology and go into computer science.”


Now, I was told not to bother studying children in anthropology and was certainly discouraged from focusing on play, but this article in Psychology Today makes it clear that play is central to culture, explored in Jane Fajan’s new book “Work and Play Among the Baining”.  I urge you to go and read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:

According to Fajans, the Baining eschew everything that they see as “natural” and value activities and products that come from “work,” which they view as the opposite of play… The Baining say, ‘We are human because we work.'” 

“The Baining believe, quite correctly, that play is the natural activity of children, and precisely for that reason they do what they can to discourage or prevent it… On those occasions when Fajans did get an adult to talk about his or her childhood, the narrative was typically about the challenge of embracing work and overcoming the shameful desire to play.”


5 thoughts on “Play is what children do – Colin Ward and the Baining

    1. I think I’d say “unless adults prevent it”.

      And children who don’t currently play will play, once adults stop stopping them?

  1. Mrs,

    In Child in the City Coin Ward mentions children as ‘doing’ or as ‘doers’ only in an aside. His quote, “Play is the thing that children do …” is credited to him as a comment made during a confrence; the quote however goes on:

    “Play is the thing that children do, all the time and everywhere.”

    1. Ahhhh – THANK YOU!

      It was one of those rare situations when google didn’t help me, and I’m so pleased to have the whole thing.

      How goes Australia?

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