Providing a facilitating environment for creative play and autonomy in young children and parents attachment-based : insights from the playgroup movement

By Linnet McMahon

Date Posted: Thursday, 2 June 2011


Linnet McMahon is a former Lecturer in Social Work (Therapeutic Child Care), University of Reading. She is now with the Planned Environment Therapy Trust.



Providing a facilitating environment for creative play and autonomy in young children and parents attachment-based : insights from the playgroup movement



It is playing and only in playing that the individual child is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self (Winnicott 1971: 54).


Creating an environment for play 

It is widely accepted and understood that play is crucial for children’s development.  Perhaps it is less clear that this means play under the control of the player, where the child feels held within safe physical and emotional boundaries and so feels free to try things out without fear, where mistakes can be made without serious consequences, and so can be learned from.  Attachment theory and research shows us that secure attachment promotes this kind of confident exploration and learning.  It also supports Winnicott’s idea that play in its widest sense is vital in enabling people to be creative and autonomous, and to develop a reflective integrated self. We know too that the capacity to play develops where there is an emotionally containing and facilitating environment, the basis for secure attachment. If we can understand the relationship-based processes involved in establishing a facilitating environment we may be clearer about how to encourage the playful thinking and doing which is at the heart of being creative and autonomous children and adults.  And society, having reached a nadir of mechanistic and bureaucratic box-ticking, may be at a point where creativity and self-direction can be valued again.


Young mothers together setting up a playgroup – a personal experience 

The most significant way in which we all learn is from personal experience. I start with an account of my own experience of starting a playgroup in the 1960s.  I had returned from a few years abroad, to spend a lonely and miserable winter, pregnant and with a toddler, in a rented upstairs flat with no stair-gate.  I was relieved and delighted to move to a village and a new housing estate where other young families were arriving. Our children met as they rode their tricycles round the block and so we mothers got to know one another.  Like many mothers we were not working, expecting to be at home with our young children, often an isolating experience if you had moved away from family and friends. (Hannah Gavron’s The Captive Wife was widely read among Guardian readers like me and I had written a thesis on role conflict in young mothers!) As elsewhere, there was no organised provision for young families in the village apart from the baby clinic. The state nursery school was in the town 10 miles away and, even had it been able to offer a place, few mothers had regular use of a car.  Long-standing village families relied on members of their extended family for help with children.
My neighbour was a Froebel teacher, and I had some training in early childhood education. We had no thought for (or possibility of) going back to work and decided we would start a playgroup. We were absorbed by our children’s development, but we felt that as our children reached the age of three they (and we) needed broader experience of the world than the home and immediate neighbourhood. Although, compared with today, children were still relatively free to go off to play outside this was happening less as people became more anxious about their children’s safety.  On the other hand we had no wish to leave our children with strangers; we wanted to be with them and to have new experiences together.  We put up a notice in the village inviting people to join us, and gathered a wide range of women, from mothers like us with no local family to others who had grown up in the village, many of whom had left school at the earliest opportunity. Together we set up the playgroup in the village hall, taking turns minding each others’ babies while the others ran the playgroup session. Grudgingly giving permission to use the hall, the village ‘aristocracy’ warned, ‘It will never last’.  It is still going as I write, although the form it takes has undoubtedly changed.
All over the UK there were other versions of this experience.


Children and mothers playing 

What we were passionate about was spontaneous play, allowing children to choose what they did, within the safe framework of the playgroup session. We wanted to encourage exploration and creativity, imaginative and pretend play, in the company of other children. We saw playgroup as complementary to the close parent-child relationship at home, with its opportunities for conversation and more individual play, although we came to realise that not all children experienced this.
In the early days we had little money for equipment so we needed to be inventive and creative.  We had plentiful supplies of used computer paper for drawing and painting. My husband made six small double sided easels and we had jam jars of powder paint with huge brushes; washing lines across the hall were hung with glorious paintings. We saved household ‘junk’ for sticking and making. We found planks and boxes for climbing. We went to the junk yard for home corner stuff, painting old spoons and saucepans, finding camp beds and old screens for playing hospitals and zoos. We had tin trays and baby baths for sand and water play. We raided jumble sales for dressing up clothes and hats.  We made play dough.  A father retrieved railway sleepers to make a much used woodwork bench.
Who was playing you might ask.  Certainly we were. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We understood that one object could become another or be used or moved in a different way. What we were doing the children could do too. So we were happy to encourage children to be similarly inventive and creative. We provided the materials. They chose how they played with them.


The rationale for spontaneous, child directed play

Where did this idea of spontaneous child-led play come from?  The nursery schools that initially were our model made child-directed play the core of their practice. Influential nursery teacher Vera Roberts was clear that “The emphasis is on the provision of a rich play environment, with freedom for each child to choose his own activity and to continue with it as long as he wishes”, an environment in which “children should be given open-ended creative experience; that is to say, they should have the opportunity to use materials in new ways, to experiment, to explore possibilities, to take pleasure in the doing rather than in the end product”, adding tartly,  “there is no place in the nursery school for a detailed demonstration of, for example, how to make a piggy-bank from an empty squeezy bottle.” (Roberts 1971: 6 & 20).   Nursery teacher and lecturer Joan Cass was at pains to explain that the then current idea of permissiveness, often derided as ‘let it all hang out’ 1960s hippy culture or feared as a selfish and combative free for all, was instead about children being “given permission to work at their own rate, and in their own time, and to choose how they work. This makes the whole process of learning interesting and exciting and children very soon meet the discipline that any activity in work or play sets them because of its own nature and purpose” (Cass 1971: 145).
The Pre-school Playgroups Association’s first national adviser Brenda Crowe, herself a Froebel nursery teacher, describes the similar freedom with responsibility, the security to explore within safe boundaries that children experience in a good playgroup.

In a happy, busy atmosphere children are painting, experimenting with wet and dry sand, water, clay, dough, bricks, woodwork, climbing apparatus and a wide variety of table top toys; playing imaginatively in the home corner, or on improvised ‘ships’ and ‘buses’; listening to stories; looking at books; enjoying music; singing; or chatting with interested adults about anything and everything. There will be ample opportunity for the children to respond to beauty in many forms; they will be stimulated to curiosity, wonder, reflection, discovery and the excitement of discovering, thinking, planning. There will be the security that comes from community rules kept out of consideration for others, and in this security the children will know freedom-with-responsibility. In this sort of atmosphere the children will truly feel ‘free’, and will be unaware that only subtle, unobtrusive ‘control’ can give them this quality of freedom in which they can feel fearlessly happy and grow towards full stature (Crowe 1971: 6).

The value of spontaneous play had been recognised even earlier. Psychoanalyst and educator Susan Isaacs advised parents “It is a wise general rule to leave the children free to use their playthings in their own way – even if this does not happen to be the way that we might think the best. For play has the greatest value for the young child when it is really free and his own” (Isaacs 1929: 133). She argued, too, that as well as playing at home young children need the company of other children.  ‘For some part of every day, young children … should enjoy a time of free play with other children, not very much older or younger…. and if no nursery school is at hand, we must find ways of joining in with other parents to ensure that their children come together for free play as often as possible” as “free from grown-up interference as possible” but “within the real limits of physical safety” (Isaacs 1929: 123).  She might have been making the case for parent-run playgroups long before they were dreamed of.
For many years Susan Isaacs was head of the Department of Child Development at London University with enormous influence on the development of nursery education. Her psycho-analytic practice gave her insight into children’s social and emotional needs which educational psychology had “so pitifully neglected”. Isaacs “could show us the whole child, functioning as a whole, and she stopped us from thinking of learning as the sole business of the school, while emotion is relegated to the home or the clinic” (Gardner 1969: 151). Isaacs was at pains to make clear that play and learning can only take place where the child feels both physically and emotionally safe. Harsh discipline constitutes a realisation of a child’s “phantastic dreads” while absence of support leaves them with deep anxiety about controlling their aggressive impulses. If a child is instead “slowly educated by a tempered, real control, mild and understanding and appropriate to each situation as it arises” they are “led forward on the path of real achievement” (Isaacs, in Gardner 1969: 164).  This emotional holding, “mild and tempered, although firm and secure” enables children to manage their own anxious and angry feelings in the real world.
Although Isaacs’ ideas influenced nursery education, they reached few post-war parents. Behaviourism and behaviour modification (based on Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s ideas on conditioned responses – its current version is cognitive behavioural treatment) held sway in psychology generally. Rigid baby and child training methods dominated advice to parents. The more flexible approach of Dr Spock brought relief to many parents in the 1960s.  Later Penelope Leach (1977) helped parents understand how a child’s mind develops, and how the mother-child relationship can be a mutually satisfying process of growth. Meanwhile, nursery and infant schools, and in their turn playgroups, held onto the notion of developing the whole child through exploration and play.


Children and mothers playing and learning in playgroups 

Many nursery teachers saw little place for mothers in the nursery school, other than settling in their children and receiving advice and support. While they recognised the significance of the mother-child relationship in children’s emotional and intellectual development they thought that by nursery school age the experts should complement and sometimes make up for the child’s experience at home. This notion was widespread.  Rare was someone like Margaret MacMillan, an early pioneer of nursery education in a poor area of east London, who considered that the nursery school should be an “efficient and homelike” extension of family life, a place where mothers might have their own contribution to make. She saw “no reason at all why… it should not one day be presided over by the mothers themselves” (MacMillan 1919).
The quality of play provision in playgroups could and did vary. The model advocated by the Pre-school Playgroups Association was that of a good nursery school, but it was then left to the groups themselves to negotiate “the intricacies of the extra dimension occasioned by parent involvement” (Crowe 1973: 62). In the absence of a theory that would embrace both, this sometimes entailed a real conflict of ideology. It needed huge skill to keep in mind both the needs of children for good play provision and the desire to ensure that all mothers, whatever their ideas about what children should be doing in the playgroup, felt not only welcome and at home but shared the responsibility for the playgroup.  Many of the mothers setting up playgroups were well-educated and open to ideas about developing the whole child and learning through play. In sympathy with the rise of feminist ideas, they enjoyed the creativity and autonomy of starting a playgroup, with benefits for themselves and their children. Other mothers were from a generation whose schooling had been more about ‘filling empty vessels’ than ‘lighting a fire’. National Adviser Brenda Crowe tried to explain that “playgroup leaders defeat the very thing they are trying to bring about if they teach children to make things before the children have had hours and hours of individual exploration in order to discover some of the properties of paper, paint, glue, clay, dough, wood, as ‘stuff’.  Similarly, children are robbed of the chance to learn to make decisions for themselves if they are endlessly required to be pliable and responsive to orders” (op.cit: 64).


Standard of play provision or value of a group in a particular community?

Yet Brenda was wary of dismissing a group as inadequate without first considering the value of a playgroup in its particular community. The question should be about what is happening in the playgroup and in the homes of these children.  If the children are having a greater range of stimulating experience and the mothers are happier and less anxious then it is a good enough playgroup.  Here are two examples, the first from then Pre-school Playgroups Association (PPA) training and development officer Jill Faux and the second PPA county organiser Shirley Palfreeman.

I remember visiting a group in an Educational Priority Area and being asked by the playleader to sit at a table with a mother and some children playing with Constructo-straws. She told me the mother was inclined to drink too much and was lacking in confidence and self-esteem. I started to put some straws together as I talked to her and the children. After a while I pushed some straws towards her and said ‘Come on, have a go’. She looked at me in panic and said ‘I don’t know how to do it’. She thought I was constructing something pre-determined and knew precisely what straw would fit next. I pulled my totally irrelevant creation apart and starting again we took it in turns to add another straw to an ever growing contraption. The children joined in, and in no time at all she was laughing and actively playing. It impressed me because it was the first time I had met someone so insecure she could do nothing for herself. In a way we had to reinvent the wheel in order to own it. Doing it with mothers, having fun, watching the light dawn over and over again, was what was so exhilarating. A playgroup we helped to establish in a run-down area of town seemed to be going well. Two playleaders had been on playgroup courses and appeared well-organised and involving the mothers; everyone seemed happy. When I called in early one morning the noise could be heard from far off. Inside the children were tearing round on bikes or running round shouting and swinging on the altar rails (the group was in a community church). Both playleaders were off sick and the mothers were organising the group, with no sign of the carefully chosen activities, painting, water play or books. Children and mothers looked happy and pleased, explaining that the children needed to ‘let off steam’ before settling down for their ‘schooling’. Thirty minutes later out came the other activities. The mothers had decided that this was the best way to organise the group, and they were right. Most of the families lived in flats and had little chance to be physically active. The benefits to the mother-child relationship could be great. In some deprived communities, especially designated Educational Priority Areas, people were encouraged to work with mothers and children together in community projects (an early version of family centres and Sure Start children’s centres).

There was evidence to support such work.  One of the long-term outcomes of the Headstart pre-school programme in the United States was that where parents were involved children grew up achieving significantly better in education and employment (Consortium for Longitudinal Studies 1979).
The notion that the value of a playgroup to a particular community was a better criterion than standard of play provision led to fierce debate within the playgroup movement, and was the point at which some people left. Undoubtedly there were playgroups, whether in well-off or poorer areas, with poor provision for children’s play and learning and where mothers had limited opportunities for playing and learning themselves. The hope was that their inclusion within the Pre-school Playgroups Association left the door open to change; sometimes this happened, sometimes not.  Even so, many playgroups offered mothers new opportunities for friendship, for playing and learning, changing their view of themselves and their children, with long term benefits for their children’s self-esteem as well as their educational future.


Children playing and learning – a national survey

The huge expansion nationwide of pre-school playgroups directly benefitted thousands of children. By 1980 over half a million children, mainly three or four years old attended the 15,000 playgroups in membership of the Pre-school Playgroups Association.  Children enjoyed playing together and made friends, often across social class and ethnic group.  A national survey described the views of 459 mothers in 32 playgroups held in halls – home playgroups were not included (Gray & McMahon 1982:5). Mothers recognised the value of play and the opportunities for play that a playgroup can provide.  They particularly valued the social benefits for their children.  Nine out of ten mothers said that playgroup made their children more confident without them and better at playing with other children; they were learning more, and generally happier. They said ‘It’s a chance to mix with other children’. ‘She’s more confident and independent, less shy’. ‘They have new activities not provided at home – sand, the slide, music and singing’. Many added that their children were more interesting and easier to get on with (‘It’s something for us to talk about’). There were possible losses if children were unnaturally cooped up in village and church halls rather than playing in neighbourhoods or if play provision was spectacularly boring and constrained (‘they tend to put the same things out each week’), but most children attended only two or three half-days a week, giving opportunity for other experience. The picture changed a little as children became rising-five, with mothers commenting ‘as children got older I should have liked to have seen more imaginative opportunities for play activities’ or asking for formal teaching ‘I think the children should learn their numbers and letters’. Some local publications – ‘Serendipity ’ (Scottish PPA), ‘Rising Five’ (Oxfordshire PPA & Education Dept.), ‘See the Daisies, Feel the Rain’  (Greater London PPA) – addressed this issue.


Benefits to the mother-child relationship

What was clear from the survey was that “a playgroup forms a bridge for the mother and young child between their life at home and the world outside, at a stage when the child needs the stimulation of new faces and new activities. Their relationship takes on a new dimension as their horizons are broadened by the experiences and people they meet at the playgroup, and by their growing independence” (Gray & McMahon 1982: 5). More than eight out of ten mothers in the study said that playgroup helped them understand how children learn through play (‘It has developed in her things that I didn’t think could be developed in a child of that age’). Many mothers worried about how they were bringing up their children and said that it helped to see what other children were like and to hear that other mothers had the same problems. More than 6 in 10 mothers said that playgroup helped them get on better with their children. For example, ‘I understand her more’. ‘It has made me more confident in the upbringing of my children’. ‘I feel part of my child’s learning process’. ‘I think others sometimes think of it as a substitute for school which is quite wrong in my view’. They valued having a break from their child, giving them some breathing space (‘just to be “me” for a little while’) or more time to spend with a baby, while confident their child was with people they trusted; mother and child appreciated each other the more as a result. Often the whole family benefited as relationships eased.
The mothers were not just the middle classes. Nearly half their partners had manual jobs, and a few were unemployed. Most fathers were involved in bringing up their children, and sometimes in the playgroup. In any case they generally approved of playgroup and tolerated its demands on mothers’ time. More than 1 in 4 mothers also had paid work, usually part-time and outside playgroup hours. In 3% of families English was not the first language.


Mothers playing and learning

In the early years of the playgroup movement we didn’t need to think about ‘parent involvement’ because we were the parents.  We came to realise that involvement was about having a sense of ownership and autonomy; it was not about joining, or running, a playgroup on someone else’s terms.
For most mothers playgroups had an important social function; it was somewhere to meet people and make real friends. Depression was a significant problem for isolated mothers cooped up within the four walls of home. Some playgroups were better than others in understanding mothers’ underlying anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and loss of identity. Many playgroups were welcoming involving places and mothers valued feeling that they had something to contribute. Three in four mothers in the survey said that taking part in running their playgroup was rewarding and that playgroup made them happier (Gray & McMahon 1982). Mothers who felt valued grew in self-confidence and so became more able to take the emotional risk of opening their minds to new ideas.
However, it was in the most involving parent-run playgroups, where parents both shared the responsibility for managing the group and also felt welcome to take an active part in playgroup sessions, and did so, that mothers said they gained most confidence in themselves as mothers and individuals. These women felt that playgroup had helped them understand their children better and put more emphasis than others on the fact that their children were happier. They welcomed the stimulation of new play activities and friends for their children, as they did for themselves, and made less mention of formal schooling. This raised an important question. “Is it that these playgroups, by expecting and enabling parents to take shared responsibility, in turn lead mothers to expect their own children to benefit from and enjoy similar situations of sharing and learning? As mothers gain in confidence themselves, they may also grow in confidence in their children’s ability to learn and grow” (op.cit: 59). [These playgroups were an example perhaps of Harrington’s (1990) creative ecosystem.]
Through working and playing together playgroup mothers were developing their own skills, in managing, negotiating, diplomacy, advocacy, leadership, nurturing, enabling, often transcending class and culture barriers and addressing the side-lining of women in society.  They were excited to find they were capable of more than they had ever imagined.  Their sense of self, of personal autonomy, grew as their role and standing outside the family developed. This could change the balance of roles and power within the family, affecting husband wife relationships – for better or worse.  Perhaps there were times too when a mother’s growth was at the expense of the child’s good experience – ‘Mummy’s at another meeting’.  Yet children also benefited from seeing that their mothers were active able adults outside the home, playing an important role in the community – a good role model. What mothers were doing was, like their children, learning through play, in the sense that they were able to try things out or try new ways of being – in an emotionally facilitating environment where it felt safe, where it was all right to make mistakes or get it wrong. In the process they created something new, or became someone different.  They were developing a sense of autonomy and identity which meant that in turn they could help their children to become thinking, self-directing, autonomous members of society.


Experiential learning as the foundation for practice – strengths and weaknesses 

The Pre-school Playgroups Association took a practical approach in its publications and in its courses. The playgroup magazine Contact provided a welcome mix of stimulating ideas and reassurance. Playgroup advisers and tutors (Crowe 1969, Jarecki 1975, Lucas and Henderson 1981) produced influential publications, all packed with invaluable advice on setting up and running a playgroup, what material to provide for play, how to provide safe boundaries and how to respond to children with special needs or whose behaviour was ‘difficult’. However, the tone was personal, sympathetic and sensitive, aware that mothers and playgroup leaders were doing their best for their children based on their previous experience. “An established playgroup does not always need ‘more things to do’; still less does it need ‘more things to make’.  The real need is for greater awareness in ourselves. We need … to know when to use a natural opportunity to discuss something with the children; to know how to encourage them to think for themselves…. Playgroups aren’t just about children. They are also about us and our relationships, both with children and each other” (Crowe 1969: 55). Much thought was given to parents’ feelings and needs.


Experiential learning – memories, child observation and workshops 

Playgroup courses drew on adult learning principles, fundamentally that effective learning was experiential (Rogers 1971). Often the starting point in understanding the value of play was to recall memories of our own childhood play, as a member of a tutors’ course describes:

Brenda asked us what we had valued as play as children, what we remembered…One member remembered washing dolls’ clothes in a butt in the garden: the soapflakes squashed together under water; the dripping clothes; winding the mangle; squeezing out the water; and the fights that arose with the many other children who came to the garden. She can still feel in memory the joy of water. Another spoke of scrubbing her grandfather’s white collars; the smoothness of the soap on the collar; the patterns of the scrubbing brush; the corrugations on the wooden draining board; scraping the water off the board; the feel of the bristles on the brush; the cold jellyness of water-saturated soap.

Observing children was another key to understanding a child’s whole experience. Susan Isaacs had emphasised the need to watch children play rather than pontificate about theory. “By watching our children play we gain a fuller knowledge of children in general, and of our own children in particular. And without that knowledge how shall we guide them?” (Isaacs 1929:123)  In playgroup courses, often informal Playing, Living and Learning ‘doorstep’ courses (a series of meetings at the playgroup), first hand observation of children was ideally suited to mothers’ learning, matching their learning though experience in the playgroup. For those fearful about their own academic abilities to be asked ‘Would you spend five minutes watching children at the dough table and just jot down what you notice’ was minimally threatening.  As ever there were mothers anxious that their children should be ready for school, perhaps to have a happier and more successful experience of education than they themselves had had. They wanted children to be ‘taught’, numbers and colours for instance, and feared that ‘play’ was not enough. Only by seeing for themselves that children learn through play could they start to relinquish deep-held convictions. As they themselves played with materials in workshops about providing sand and water play, dough and clay, painting and so on they experienced the joy (and fears) of exploring, experimenting, being destructive and being creative. They could try out ideas without fear of failure because the process was what mattered, not an end product.


Absence of theory that embraced both play and the mother-child relationship

The emphasis in playgroup courses on experiential learning meant that real learning took place, rather than an arid acquisition of theory which had little impact on practice.  There was a drawback however.  The lack of an overall theory, backed by research, meant that it was not easy to make a good case to the outside world for children’s need for spontaneous play or for the benefits of parental involvement and responsibility. Nursery training could not offer this either.
Both playgroup and nursery courses gave attention to stages of development, and of intellectual development in particular, influenced by the ideas of Piaget (1926/1959). Piaget was interested in how children develop language and thinking, although also aware of the therapeutic benefits of imaginative play in helping children master fears and phantasies. He maintained a welcome emphasis on play which he saw as the child’s way of assimilating, making sense of, internalising their experience – making it part of themselves; the complementary process was accommodation as the child learned to meet the demands of the real world.
Attachment theory was in its infancy, with much antipathy to Bowlby who was seen as holding back mothers’ own development by tying them to the home. There was little understanding ofdifferent kinds of mother-child attachment and the dynamics of these relationships, which would have helped make sense of them. Neither nursery nor playgroup courses covered psycho-analytic ideas about unconscious mental processes, although this would have been invaluable in understanding projected feelings, that how other people made you feel was a useful indicator of how they were really feeling (McMahon and Ward 2001). It would have helped make sense of personal attacks and hostility, limiting the personal hurt people felt and allowing them to respond to the underlying feeling, for example, to the fear which is often behind anger.  Isaacs’ profound understanding of the development of the child’s inner world of thoughts and feelings, based on the child’s first relationships with mother or other significant person at home, was lost, along with her awareness of the unconscious processes underlying emotional containment, except in the simplest sense.
Theory of emotional development risked being watered down into a recital of Erikson’s (1965) developmental tasks of achieving basic trust, autonomy, and initiative.  Vital though understanding these stages is, there was less insight into what the child’s inner world was like when these tasks were not achieved – the implications for a child (and adult) whose expectations of the world were of mistrust, shame and doubt, guilt. There was some good advice on managing behaviour in general but less insight about how to help a mother-child relationship in difficulty, although of course there were people who offered invaluable help and support to some mothers. Winnicott’s ideas (1965) of emotional holding and the facilitating environment – both why it matters and how to provide it – scarcely reached us.
The exception was awareness of the meaning of separation for the child, as Bowlby’s (1951, 1965, 1969 et seq) ideas on attachment and separation gained wider currency, largely through the powerful films (the first in 1953) of James and Joyce Robertson who filmed the increasing distress of young children separated from their mothers without the provision of a substitute attachment figure, and the corollary – how distress could be minimised by an emotionally containing mother substitute.  The result was careful attention to the process of settling children in to playgroup or nursery.


Demands for more rigour in education 

Child-centred practice in playgroups was underpinned by the Plowden Report (1967) which had argued that a technological society needed flexible and creative thinkers, to be produced by schools with a more play-based curriculum tailored to the needs and interests of the child.  While a transmission model probably remained dominant, a more relaxed approach meant that children enjoyed primary school.  Doubts crept in with anxiety that children from more disadvantaged families and communities had inadequate language and communication skills (Bernstein 1971). Government demanded more rigour in primary education. Infant schools started to introduce the structured language and play programmes advocated by Joan Tough (1974) and others. The culture of structuring play seeped down into nursery classes in schools (by the late 1970s becoming more numerous than separate nursery schools) and into playgroups.  Nursery educator Joan Cass warned:

It seems a little unfortunate that in some quarters today there is a certain reaction against children’s spontaneous play which it is felt so often to be more usefully directed by the skilled adult into carefully planned learning experiences. Of course children want to learn and the adult must provide a challenging and stimulating environment in which optimum learning can take place. Great care, however, is needed, for structures disguised as play can sometimes be unimaginative, uninspired and adult-oriented and hinder development rather than help it (Cass 1975: 20).

This timely warning went largely unheeded. At their best people using these programmes in playgroups were attuned to the responses of individual children. At worst it was a didactic parody (Maxwell 1984) of what they thought nursery teaching was – doing ‘floating and sinking’ ad nauseam. Later studies, such as Barbara Tizard’s (1984), demonstrated that the apparent deficiencies of disadvantaged children were largely a myth (children and parents at home had elaborate shared conversations) and were more a consequence of the social structures of class, power and prejudice that the children encountered outside the home. But the damage had been done.


The basis for cognitive development in human interaction – Bruner’s research into early years practice 

A major research study of children’s experience in different forms of early years provision in England was led by respected American psychologist Jerome Bruner, who had taken Piaget’s ideas a stage further to show that cognitive development had its basis in human interaction.  Bruner (1985:32) wrote “The world is a symbolic world in the sense that it consists of conceptually organized, rule bound belief systems about what exists, about how to get to goals, about what is to be valued. There is no way, none, in which a human being could possibly master that world without the aid and assistance of others for, in fact, that world is others.” This has resonance today with the prevailing idea that a child’s experience is always culturally mediated, often through language, but also through how things are presented.
The detailed observations of The Oxford Pre-school Research Group showed that what helped develop children’s concentration and thinking was the ‘scaffolding’ provided by stimulating adults.  Play that developed in complexity was most likely when an adult was close by, when only two children were playing together, or when the setting was intimate (such as a cosy corner or den). Further, the observations revealed that most adult talk in playgroups, nursery schools and classes was about managing the group’s activities or giving instructions. Rather little took the form of connected turn-taking contingent conversations with children where each made a contribution and listened to one another. Yet it was in these conversations that children were developing their ability to think and reflect. Adults asking too many questions were discouraging, and adults asking questions to which they already knew the answer were a complete turn off. The conclusion was that the role of the helpful adult was to provide a “buffer to distraction” and to “entice the children into more complex play” (Bruner 1980: 66). One way was to encourage conversations and stories about children’s experiences of other times, places and people, rather than the here and now. Another was to provide a non-intrusive commentary on (or join in) play, especially pretend play, but contingent on the child’s response.
Perhaps Bruner’s most important contribution was to make clear that a child’s development did not depend simply on the provision of the right materials or input. The capacity to think grows out of relationships, within and outside the home, where people listen to one another, talking and playing together. Here was the beginning of a more useful theory to explain what was happening in good playgroups.  In later years when I became interested in play therapy I realised that the listening, reflective, commenting adult role Bruner advocated had much in common with a play therapist’s attentive, reflective stance in enabling emotionally distressed or damaged children to heal themselves through play. Play therapy has its theory base in psycho-analytic ideas of emotional containment and Winnicott’s (1965) ‘facilitating environment’, a subject to which I will return.
Bruner realised that much research failed to influence practice. “In the realm of child care when one is dealing with concerned people, new knowledge about children that comes from outside one’s own experience seems to make little headway against received wisdom and ‘commonsense’ practice. It is only when the research helps one to see with one’s own eyes that it gets beneath the skin” (Bruner 1980: 211). Accordingly he recruited practitioners as researchers, including playgroup tutors of whom I was one.  We modified the child observation method into one which became widely used on playgroup foundation courses (Holmes and McMahon 1979).  Its structured observations (in retrospect, probably too structured) matched new demands for rigour, yet were consistent with earlier playgroup approaches to learning about child development through observing – that is, it was the process of learning from one’s own experience that had the power to change approaches and attitudes. It became one of the tools for professionalising playgroup courses, which was happening in the 1980s.


The decline of playfulness 

Playgroup courses struggled to remain experiential and engaging, still giving opportunities for mothers to play and learn, in the face of coping with the introduction of a curriculum and eventually a qualification. In those years playgroups were becoming increasingly the province of playgroup leaders or supervisors, with parents limited to coming in on a rota and taking part in the management committee.  The playfulness of mothers, and playgroup leaders, tended to be lost in a more bureaucratic and routinised approach to running a playgroup.  Perhaps this was inevitable; the excitement and challenge of starting something new requires different skills from those needed to sustain an existing organisation. The outlook of ‘keeping things going’ does not invite the creativity and exploration of play. As the adults became less playful this was transmitted to the children in the predictability and limitations of the play that was provided and encouraged.
Broader social changes were taking place. In the 1960s and 1970s Brenda Crowe had urged mothers to survive saying ‘no’ to their children and stay in charge of toddler tantrums, but she was up against a generation of relatively deprived mothers who wanted to give their children what they themselves had never had, and who saw this in terms of material possessions and success rather than love and containment.  Brenda warned in vain about the consequences and we reaped the whirlwind in Thatcher’s children. Thatcherism was about the individual not society; social values shifted in the direction of selfishness and greed. Marketisation and managerialism, with their tick-box targets, replaced professionalism and emotional containment in the workplace. This meant loss of the capacity to think and reflect. With the coming of the National Curriculum after 1988 teachers lost their autonomy to decide what was taught. Although they were supposed to retain ‘how’ it was taught this too was undermined by prescription, testing and inspection. This mindset trickled down into playgroups, as they too lost much of their autonomy. These factors, together with the growth of a ‘risk averse’ culture, led to diminished opportunities for children’s spontaneous and creative play. Individualism also meant the loss of a sense of belonging to or playing a part in the community. In many ways this is still the prevailing culture, although there is an uneasy sense that something important has been lost.


Making the case for play – theory and research

From Isaacs to Bruner, as well as in the playgroup movement, there was agreement that effective practice must be based on experiential learning, and that child development in particular was best learned through observing children. Equally, all had experienced the frustration of being unable to influence powerful policy makers who had little understanding of child development or who held different values and priorities. Managers and politicians (having neither time nor inclination) are not going to learn this experientially. They need some other way of understanding what children need, something ‘scientific’, such as outcome studies, and something that they can grasp quickly by reading, for preference on no more than one side of A4. Like others before them, people  in the playgroup movement  could not supply this, other than in the notion, relatively new then but taken for granted now, that the child’s experience in the early years is crucial to how they develop later.  Even so, policy makers may have different notions of childhood, different values for learning and education, different priorities. Despite the lip service to evidence-based practice today, the evidence of research is rarely the major influence in choice of a policy; rather it is used where it supports an already chosen policy priority.  However, it is usually the best resource we have got. (Having friends in high places is another!) People in the playgroup movement whose learning was, as we have seen, largely experiential had little firepower with which to challenge the policy makers who had the power to make a difference. What was needed, then and now, was a good body of theory, backed up by research, to provide the coherent argument for play.


The function of play 

What is play?  Children are often described as ‘just playing’, as if what they are doing is unimportant. Yet play is a child’s work.  For children play is essential as a way of helping them make sense of the world and having some control over their lives.  We can understand this when we think about our own needs as adults for play.  Most of us are familiar with the mental freezing that goes with pressure. If someone is explaining how to use a new piece of technology we can feel increasingly muddled and anxious, longing for them to stop talking so that we can ‘play’ on our own and gradually become more familiar with this new thing. We may find that if we stop thinking about a particular problem “we may be surprised to find an answer popping unexpectedly into our heads: our mind has been left to play, quietly wandering round the problem, and has found a solution” (McMahon 2009: 6). It is the same for children. Making sense of the world is an enormous task but they are less able to find the words, and also have less autonomy than adults. “Play under the control of the player gives to the child his first and the most crucial opportunity to have the courage to think, to talk and perhaps even to be himself” (Bruner 1983). In play a child can explore and create, find out how things and people work, and give the imagination free rein. Unlike adults who can mull things over in their minds, children need to re-enact events or play out strong feelings, in the process gaining a sense of inner peace and of the world feeling more manageable.
Paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott argued that in play the child is connecting their inner world with some aspect of outside reality, which is the beginning of symbolisation and of creativity.  For example, the growing child’s separation anxiety is often helped by a soft toy, ribbon or blanket (their ‘transitional object’) which becomes the child’s chosen comforter or friend. It is both a real object and one that has emotional meaning for the child, a symbolic means of managing anxiety and perhaps the child’s first creation. This is a reminder of the crucial link between play and the development of a sense of identity, of being an individual:  “It is playing and only in playing that the individual child is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott 1971: 54).
Play is the key to development of the sense of self and of the ability to think, to connect thinking and feeling. This is the case for children but equally for adults, for mothers, for parents. How does this come about?


Emotional holding and the facilitating environment – origins of the capacity to play

The essentials for play to take place are (McMahon 2009: 8):
Autonomy – the need for the player to feel in control of the play and the direction it takes, whether or not another person is present or playing
No serious consequences – the process of playing matters more than the results: mistakes do not have serious consequences which means that risks can be taken
Safe boundaries – the need for the player to feel safe within a physical boundary of time and space, where the rules of everyday life do not apply, and to feel well enough held emotionally, whether or not a ‘containing’ person is actually present.
Winnicott argued that the beginning of play is in the safe space, the ‘potential space’, between a mother and her baby, where the mother ‘makes ready what the baby is prepared to find’.  The infant has the ‘illusion of autonomy’ and feels free to explore and play, and so is able to think and learn. The ‘good enough’ mother is attuned to the subtle cues as to how her baby is feeling, making a space in her mind where she digests this, sometimes consciously but often without being aware of doing so.  This process of being open to being stirred up emotionally Bion calls ‘maternal reverie’. The mother’s task is to tolerate without being overwhelmed by her infant’s feelings, and give back more loving than anxious or hating feelings. This enables the developing child to be able to bear the experience of having both loving and angry or fearful feelings about the same person. The child becomes able to hold onto and think about these mixed emotions, rather than simply get rid of the uncomfortable feelings through some kind of physical expression or mental suppression. In other words, instead of being driven by anxiety about how to get good enough care, the child internalises the experience of being emotionally contained and so develops a mind able to hold thoughts (Waddell 2002).
A mother (or person in the mothering role – it might be a father) is only able to provide emotional holding or containment if she too is emotionally held by those close to her (or by her past good experience). They in their turn need the emotional holding of a society that recognises the value of what they are doing. This is Winnicott’s (1965) facilitating environment, made up of concentric circles of emotional holding.


Attachment theory and research – secure attachment as the basis for play

Winnicott’s idea of emotional holding and the facilitating environment is supported by the vast body of theory and research of attachment theory, further supported by growing neuro-physiological evidence. Attachment theory is about the development of the different forms of the child’s attachment to the mother (or other attachment person). This attachment may be more or less secure.  Secure attachment means that the child has a secure base (Bowlby’s phrase) which paradoxically frees the child to explore and find out about the world.  This sense of a secure base being available is initially about the mother’s physical and emotional holding in the first years of life. This does not mean being glued to the child 24 hours a day as Bowlby was initially interpreted but, as Winnicott and others showed, is more about the provision in the mother’s mind of an inner mental space for the child.  The child who feels reliably and predictably ‘held in mind’ feels secure and confident enough to explore, play and think. This experience becomes internalised so that the child develops an inner representational model of the world and of other people as trustworthy and loving and the self as worthy of that love.
There are degrees and kinds of a child’s attachment, ranging from secure to anxious, arising out of different kinds of mother-child relationships (Crittenden 2000). Understanding of these is a valuable tool in working out how to help both the child and the parent where there are difficulties. An anxiously attached child cannot play and think without some kind of emotional holding or containment. Parents of course have their own attachment (more or less secure) based on their past history. It affects their view of themselves and it affects their mothering and ability to provide emotional holding. Early intervention can make a difference to the future of child and mother.


The playgroup as a facilitating environment 

A playgroup that supports the mother-child relationship can help to sustain or encourage a secure attachment, enabling the child to explore and play, and be creative, as Winnicott explained. This is a real independence, in which the child is confident that their dependency needs will be met when they arise, growing out of initial reliable dependence, rather than the false independence of the anxious child having to cope too early on their own. Further, a playgroup can provide a secure base – a holding or facilitating environment – for an anxiously attached mother (which was probably most of us, if in varying degrees) and so allow her too to explore, play and be creative. In the process the mother-child relationship is strengthened, and both gain emotionally and intellectually.
Perhaps the facilitating environment can be symbolised as a set of Russian dolls. The Pre-school Playgroups Association and the elements in society which supported a good playgroup provided the external containment for those whose task was to run the playgroup; they in turn provided the emotional holding for the playgroup mothers (and sometimes the fathers or other family members), enabling them to provide emotional holding for their child. In any case, the child needs the holding of both mother and the community of playgroup people, providing a safe potential space in which they can play and grow into thinking, feeling, autonomous and competent individuals.


Why the idea of play in a facilitating environment is relevant now

Two current voices: “Children are not playing at life; it’s more serious than that; they are working at how to live” (psycho-analyst Adam Phillips 2010).  “An education where you don’t find out who you are is, to my mind, not an education” (Children’s Laureate & poet Michael Rosen 2010).  Over thirty years ago Jerome Bruner wrote presciently, “Economics, chilling and compelling though the immediate prospects may be, does not justify risking a generation …. The object of education at any age is surely broad and plural: to produce competent and zestful human beings who can manage their own lives and contribute to the common good while doing so” (Bruner 1980: 5&10). Today this is echoed in Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review (2009) which argues for an education that heeds children’s voices and empowers them for life as both learners and citizens. He calls for a “dialogic education”, with a focus on talk that is “reciprocal and cumulative” (a resonance with Bruner’s ‘turn-taking contingent conversation’). The Review deplores the decline of community and the massive inequality, with its tail of disadvantage, poverty and under-achievement, in England today and asks that childhood’s rich potential should be protected from “a system apparently bent on pressing children into a uniform mould at an ever-younger age”.
There are other moves to encourage play and creativity in the early years, mainly influenced by the Italian Reggio Emilia approach (Edwards et al. 1998), itself grounded in the community’s political desire for its children to think for themselves.  This approach views the child as competent and autonomous, able to make meaning from experience. The adult’s role is to support the child’s interests and encourage a creative and playful exploration of the physical and cultural world around them. Children are seen as the collective responsibility of a closely connected community of adults and children, in which parents have a vital role in shaping services. In translation to a British context (such as the 5x5x5 project, Drummond 2005) there has been surprise and delight, both in the flourishing of children’s creative thinking and in the development of a community of adult relationships built on a spirit of enquiry, reflection and playful thinking. Adults have learned about their own capacities for growth and change. There has been astonishment at the high level of parental involvement!  Here is another facilitating environment, with the possibility of exercise of democratic power in a local community. How well such initiatives, that mean living with uncertainty and open-mindedness, will fare long-term in a more competitive and highly regulated society is yet to be seen. It is worth trying. Certainly children’s centres and family centres need understanding of the benefits of play in a facilitating environment – and how to provide it – if they are to further the development of happier and competent children and families.

From the playgroup movement we can learn how to provide the potential space within which children and their families from all walks of life, sometimes together, sometimes in separate ways, can play, be creative, bring together thoughts and feelings, learn and think and reflect, and so develop a fuller sense of self and self-esteem. It is not only about children playing and learning but also about adults learning through playing. Ultimately, it is about using ourselves, which means using spontaneity, playfulness and self-awareness in engaging with others, children, parents and professionals, to nurture their development and competence. Creating and sustaining a facilitating environment, a community based on social cooperation, is difficult work. Those involved in turn need their own holding environment, their own containing and reflective space within which they can ‘play’ without fear with their thoughts and feelings. It may currently be the road less travelled by, but it could make all the difference.

Alexander, Robin (ed.) (2009) Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review.  London: Routledge

Bernstein, Basil (1971) Class, Codes and Control . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Bowlby, John (1965 2nd edn) Child Care and the Growth of Love .  Harmondsworth: Penguin, abridged from Maternal Care and Mental Health (1951) Geneva: WHO

Bowlby, John (1969 et seq.) Attachment and Loss  (3 volumes) London: Hogarth Press.

Bruner, Jerome (1980) Under-Five in Britain . London: Grant McIntyre

Bruner, Jerome (1983) ‘The Functions of Play’, address to the Pre-school Playgroups Association Conference at Llandudno, in Contact, December.

Bruner, J. (1985) ‘Vygotsky: A historical and conceptual perspective’, in J. Wertsch (ed.) Culture, communication and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives  (p21-34). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Erikson, Erik (1965) Childhood and Society. London: Penguin

Cass, Joan (1971) The Significance of Children’s Play . London: Batsford

Cass, Joan (1975) ‘Play’, chapter 2 in Roger Owen (ed.) State of Play: Pre-school Education Now . London: BBC

Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (Lazar and Darlington) (1979) Lasting Effects after Pre-school: summary report. U.S Department of Health, Education & Welfare.

Crittenden, P.M. (2000) The Organisation of Attachment Relationships: Maturation, culture and change . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crowe, Brenda (1971) Playgroup Activities. London: Pre-school Playgroups Association

Crowe, Brenda (1971) The Playgroup Movement : a Report by the National Adviser to the Pre-school Playgroups Association . London: Pre-school Playgroups Association (also 1973 London: Allen & Unwin)

Drummond, Mary Jane (2005) Report on Nesta 5x5x5

Edwards, C., Gandini, L. & Forman, G. (eds) (1998) The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia Approach – Advanced Reflections . Norwood N.J. : Ablex

Gardner, D.E.M.  (1969) Susan Isaacs . London: Methuen

Gavron, Hannah (1966) The Captive Wife: Conflicts of Housebound Mothers . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Gray, Maureen. and McMahon, Linnet. (1982)  Families in Playgroups: a study of the effect of playgroup experience on families . PPA Research Committee. Reading: S Region PPA

Harrington, D. M. (1990) ‘The Ecology of Human Creativity: A psychological perspective’, in Runco, M. A. and Albert, R. S. (eds.) Theories of Creativity. London: Sage

Holmes, Avril, and McMahon, Linnet (1979) Learning from Observation .  London: Pre-school Playgroups Association

Isaacs, Susan (1929) The Nursery Years: the mind of the child from birth to six years . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Jarecki, Hilde (1975) Playgroups, a Practical Approach . London: Faber & Faber

Leach, Penelope (1977) Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five.  London: Michael Joseph

Lucas, Joyce and Henderson, Ann (1981), Pre-School Playgroups: A Handbook . London: Allen & Unwin

McMahon, Linnet & Ward, Adrian (eds) Helping Families in Family Centres: working at therapeutic practice . London: Jessica Kingsley

MacMillan, Margaret (1919) The Nursery School. London: Dent, quoted by Sally Maxwell in  ‘Playgroups: the parent as parasite, parody or partner’, in NCB Partnership paper 2 on parent involvement 1984)

Maxwell, Sally (1984) ‘Playgroups: the parent as parasite, parody or partner’, in NCB Partnership paper 2 on Parent Involvement. London: National Children’s Bureau.

Phillips, Adam (2010) in Imagine: Art is Child’s Play  BBC1 22nd June

Piaget, Jean (1926/1959) The Language and Thought of the Child . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Plowden Report (1967) Children and their Primary Schools . London: HMSO

Roberts, Vera (1971) Playing, Learning and Living . London: A&C Black

Robertson, James (1953) A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital . Tavistock Clinic (London) and New York: New York University Film Library.

Rogers, Jennifer (1971) Adults Learning . Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Rosen, Michael (2010) in Imagine: Art is Child’s Play  BBC1 22nd June

Tizard, Barbara & Hughes, Martin (1984) Young Children Learning: Talking and thinking at home and at school. London: Fontana

Tough, Joan (1974) Focus on Meaning. London: Allen & Unwin

Waddell, Margot  (1998/2002 rev.ed.) Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the growth of the personality.  London: Duckworth/Karnac

Winnicott, D.W. (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World. London: Penguin

Winnicott, D.W. (1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock