From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Toys to the Barbie Liberation Organization – What Does it Mean to ‘Play Well’?

A new exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection shows us why we should advocate for and defend the importance of ‘play’ – for our mental health as well as creativity

There’s a jaw-dropper close to the start of ‘Play Well’. A vitrine displays creative toys devised by Friedrich Fröbel – founder, in 1837, of the kindergarten movement, which advocated creative, early-years play. Fröbel called these toys ‘gifts’ and they range from simple blocks and rope balls for the very young to rods and wooden tiles for pattern-making, coloured paper for folding, and boxes of dried peas and sticks for construction-modelling. 

Hung alongside is Paul Klee’s Seaside Resort in the South of France (1927), a photograph of Buckminster Fuller holding a geodesic sphere and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 house, Fallingwater. What connects these three titans of Modernism? Fröbel’s gifts. They informed Klee and Johannes Itten in their development of the foundation course at the Bauhaus. Fuller credited his early-years experiments with dried peas and sticks for teaching him the stability of triangles. And, Lloyd Wright’s mother was a kindergarten teacher: it was through playing with Fröbel’s wooden blocks, he later wrote in his 1932 autobiography, that ‘form became feeling’.

Mark Neville, The Frog Pond at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, London, 2016. Courtesy: the artist 

Arguments for the impact of creative play hardly come more compelling. As the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition illustrates, such activities are imperilled: by digital devices, naturally, but also by conflict, poverty and social insecurity on the one hand, as well as by risk-averse tendencies within affluent societies on the other.

The adventure playground movement that emerged in postwar Europe was inspired by children’s play on bombsites, exploiting broken materials and rubble to build temporary structures. Today, concerned parents prefer children don’t roam outdoors alone or play with sticks, pins and sharp tools, but there are still advocates for more adventurous play that allows children to learn and understand risk. Photographer and activist Mark Neville’s candid photographs of the Toffee Park Adventure Playground in London (from the project ‘Child’s Play’, 2017) show children caught up in a self-contained and self-determined world of imagination. 

Ryan Gander, I is... (v), 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery, London 

Ryan Gander, I is... (v), 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery, London

Neville has also photographed children playing (or unable to play) in conflict areas around the world. In other images from ‘Child’s Play’, on display in ‘Play Well’, we encounter Kristina, a Ukrainian girl with whose family Neville sheltered during shelling. Minutes after the bombs fell, she was engaged in noisy play that Neville judged as being her way of dealing with trauma. 

Paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott used drawing as an important part of his play therapy. In the ‘Squiggle Game’, he and his child patients alternated in supplying random lines to build up a picture. They also took it in turns to discuss one another’s drawings. (Art criticism as therapy – who knew?) Exhibition visitors are invited to engage in their own therapeutic games by Adam James, who has built a soft arena full of ambiguous objects, in which young and old alike can indulge in role play (All of Us are Myself, 2019).

Mark Neville, Arts and Crafts at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground, London, 2011. Courtesy: the artist

The idea that ‘good’ play is necessarily constructive and harmonious is delightfully squashed by Eva Rothschild’s irresistible video Boys and Sculpture (2012). The premise is simple: Rothschild put a group of boys in a gallery with cardboard models of her sculptures; she then filmed them as the slow urge to dismantle the structures and redeploy their components as weaponry or sporting equipment became irresistible. As with adventure playgrounds, Boys and Sculpture is a reminder of the different visions of the world offered by a playful mind.

Over time, however, toys have tended to become more prescriptive. LEGO – from which the exhibition takes its name; leg godt in Danish means ‘play well’ – has travelled a long way since its 1958 inception as 4 x 2 coloured plastic bricks. Back in the 1980s, for instance, it broke with the convention of the day in promoting construction toys to girls and boys alike. Today’s LEGO Friends sets have ditched the primary colours for mauve, pink and turquoise and feature female play figures. The series was developed after LEGO consulted girls about how it might tempt them back to construction blocks: it’s been a roaring success. 

Shirley Baker, Girls upside down, 1966. Courtesy: © Nan Levy for The Estate of Shirley Baker and Wellcome Collection, London

If creative play has such an influence on development, how do you approach the apparent demand for toys that reinforce questionable stereotypes? In 1993, the artist-activist group Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) took matters into its own hands, switching the voice boxes on batches of Teen Talk Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, enabling the soldiers to shop and the teenage girls to skirmish with lethal weapons. ‘We’ve turned against our creators because they’ve used us to brainwash kids, they build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes – those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development,’ explains Barbie in the official BLO statement.

We should pay heed to BLO’s rallying call. Drawing attention to the importance of play – for mental health as well as creativity – is a reminder that we adults need to advocate for and defend it. Children without the opportunity for free play will not know to identify the lack of it. 

‘Play Well’, Wellcome Collection, London, is on view until 8 March 2020

Main image: Beth Moseley and Kate Read, ToyLikeMe, 2019. Courtesy: Wellcome Collection, London  

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.

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