Photo/stories from the field: A note on play in children’s research

The concept of play has attained an undisputable place in childhood scholarship where the naturalisation and orthodoxy is hardly been questioned in theory and practice until recently (see Cook, 2016). The liberal notion of play is assumed beneficial for children, besides developmental needs, for enabling agency, participation, and voice. Play is also commercialised and politicised – the effects of play materials and the gaming industry, and the practice of politics in terms of age, class, sex, class, ethnicity and other differences are discussed in the literature. Interestingly, literature from the global south shows that, for many disadvantaged children, play is often combined with work and/or household chores (Sreenivas, 2010) and it’s not a distinct activity in everyday life. That suggests that the concept of play is much more complicated than as it’s registered in the normative framework of ‘ideal’ childhood.

In the course of our fieldwork, as we described in one of our recent papers on childhood idioms (link to follow), we were often enlisted, interrupted, diverted and recommenced our research activities because of children’s play and/or playfulness. At times, the open demand for play from few children was irresistible, so found ourselves in heavy negotiations to conduct our research activities.

I discuss here the following episode of play from my fieldwork experiences in Hyderabad, India.

We meet Anjali, a 6-year-old girl, for the second time after our informal introductory visit in the summer of 2015. It is our first formal visit so after exchanging our initial pleasantries, we start our conversation with Anjali by asking ‘what shall we do now? She immediately replies on the spur-of-the-moment ‘let us play’. The response is very quick and natural. She said she wants to play ‘hide and seek’ and, to our surprise, she also wants her mother and grandmother to join us playing. They both seemed to be uncomfortable with her demand. But Anjali is adamant and pesters them again. I do not know what to say and it is a bit awkward for me to intervene. Somehow, they agree to her wish half-heartedly. She asks her mom to bring a piece of cloth to blindfold. She explains us the rules of the game and the boundary for hiding and where to hide and where not to hide in the small living room. We start playing. The participation level of her mother and grandmother drops after 5-10 minutes but Anjali seems to continue and enjoy playing. Ten minutes later, we say we can do some work and maybe we can continue playing at the end. She appears to be not full convinced but nonchalantly nods her head.

Moments later, while having a discussion on what matters to her, Anjali just casually breaks away from our conversation to go to her room and returns with a chessboard. After bringing the chessboard, she says she wants to play chess with me. I feel embarrassed to say ‘no’ again, so I accept her wish. At the back of my mind, I am thinking that I could discreetly continue my research conversation while playing. She invents her own rules for the game and I simply follow that as she instructs. Thinking myself as a shrewd researcher, I resume my research conversation while we engaged in playing chess. Anjali appears to be more focussed on the game than the conversation. I persist on my conversation by asking about her summer vacation and how she spends her time everyday? She says she spends time mostly on playing, mainly playing teacher – student game with books and pillows (imaginative play). She retorts quickly and concentrates on the game again. I extend my conversation with a follow-up question. She is totally engrossed in playing chess and ignores my discussion. Every time, when my concentration level drops in the game, she tells me to stay focussed by directing my attention on the chessboard with a non-verbal gesture. Interestingly, the more I am pursuing the discussion, the more she is interested in playing chess.

On reflection of this particular episode and many other play experiences with children, I was wondering first of all how did she perceive our research and us? I didn’t even remember that if I ever mentioned in my introductory visit that we were going to play with her during our visit, if not always at least at some point of time. It is not sensible to suggest that all children in our research demanded us to play with them with the same intensity as one or two children did. A couple of children hardly expected us to play with them though they indulged in lots of playful activities in different ways and forms. Apparently, the demand for play is determined by several factors. After few visits and knowing Anjali’s everyday life a lot better, we realised that her interest in playing with us might also be one of the indications that how badly she misses outdoor play or playmates in her everyday family life. She is a single child and the opportunity she gets for playing with others is less in the home environment. So, irrespective of the differences in physical size and age, she wanted to play with us during our visits. In a sense, it is a good sign for us that the adult-child differences and power differentials in research are diluted to some extent through play and we would advocate for play to be recognised as an idioms of childhood (link to follow), which might enable our understanding on the relationship between childhood and public life beyond the language frame and tuning us to pay more attention to other aspects of children’s communication.

When we began our research in 2014, we neither expected to be playing with children to the level we actually did, nor, we idealised children’s play as troubled by Cook (2016). Nevertheless, as Gallacher and Gallagher (2008) argue, over time, I realised that children in the study in Hyderabad not only adopted, resisted or manipulated our research methods but also appropriated us in a way beneficial or enjoyable to them, mainly through play. While play is often considered as a springboard for effectively employing other ‘research methods’, its rarely been discussed in methods literature. What we found out through our fieldwork experiences is that play is not just developmental, educational and recreational or a springboard for ‘research methods’ but it has much more to offer.

Further Reading:

Cook, D. T. (2016) Disrupting play: A cautionary note, Childhood, 23 (1): 3-6.

Gallacher, L., Gallagher, M. (2208) Methodological immaturity in childhood research? Thinking through ‘participatory methods’, Childhood, 15 (4): 499-516.

Sreenivas, D. (2010) Forging new communities: Gendered childhood through the lens of caste. Feminist Theory, 11 (3): 267-281.

Any thoughts?

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