I’ll admit it, having no kids of my own, this isn’t the kind of thing I’d rush to see. And yet there’s something about the latest Wellcome Collection show that still appeals universally in the questions it poses. Why do we play? How important is it for all of us, young or old? What does it mean – if anything – to ‘play well’?
While not then a subject to which some of us may have previously given any thought, this exhibition, whose title we learn has multiple implications, explores what it calls “the transformative power of play in childhood and in society at large.”
Featuring toys, games, artworks and design from the mid-1800s to now, it investigates how previous generations played, as well as how children do now, and the importance in developing social bonds, emotional resilience and physical wellbeing. It examines the relevance of play in the adult world and its vital role in fostering imagination, enabling independent thought and challenging the status quo.
Divided into three sections, each proves as fascinating as the last. ‘Nature/Nurture’ explores an ancient axis, balancing footage of spirited young animals with absorbing tales about how the idea of Kindergarten (literal meaning: ‘children garden’) took hold in 1830.The brainchild of one Friedrich Frobel, the Kindergarten proposed “guided activities”, known as Occupations, and Gifts, made of simple materials such as wooden blocks, slate or paper.
Here we also learn the origin of the nursery school, set up by the McMillan sisters in 1917 for London’s most impoverished, and the Reggio Emilia Approach, named after the region of northern Italy that places play at the forefront of learning, with the motto: ‘Children have a hundred languages, they rob them of ninety nine.’ A highlight is the powerful images of refugee kids apparently care-free in war-torn parts of the world, “processing trauma with defiance and resilience.”
Second section ‘Toys Like Us’ is arguably the most ‘fun’ part, with the stories of pioneering brands like Lego. Dating back to 1932, Lego was originally a side project of Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen after the Wall Street Crash, its name a shortened version of ‘leg godt’, which means – geddit? – ‘play well’. Also in this section are doll’s houses (and their backstory), alongside a fascinating display of campaigners calling for more diversity in toy design, from Barbie with a prosthetic limb to the Hulk with a diabetic line.
The final part, ‘Rules and Risk’, extrapolates the idea that risk forms an essential part of childhood shenanigans, with the genesis of the adventure playground. Fascinating photographs, video footage and paintings abound, including images of post-war kids leap-frogging over gravestones or scrambling on building sites in Glasgow’s Gorbals or Moss Side in Manchester, underlining the necessity of “risky play and the friendships that develop”. And don’t miss a video of haughty landscape architect Lady Allen of Hartwood filmed in 1971 lightly bragging about how she brought the first adventure playgrounds to the UK, after visiting Copenhagen after the War.
Naturally there’s the obligatory epilogue on video games – including an old Atari from 1977 – and the rise of safety fears, surveillance and all things digital, but that subject seems to me a different topic altogether.
Ironically, there’s not much here for kids themselves, other than a commission by artist Adam James, who examines the role of play in the adult world and its potential to promote empathy. He’s created a central space in the room where visitors can take part in either independent play – if they feel the urge – or facilitated gallery games, part of the Wellcome Collection’s accompanying live programme.