Headshot of Nic Golightly

The importance of play

Blue Cabin Associate Artist, Nicola Golightly, shows how you can incorporate play into Creative Life Story Work.

“Play isn’t something trivial or useless. We think of it as something we do on the side, but it’s very important for our wellbeing, for our survival as the human race,” Michael Rosen (Poet, performer and author)

Rosen believes that open-ended play — where we improvise and through trial and error find what works — makes us flexible and adaptable. This directly correlates with my practice and approach to engagement. With the mindset/question of ‘what if…’ and the acceptance of failure as part of the creative process, this allows for a less serious approach to exploring life stories.

Just as Rebecca Booth (Therapeutic Social Worker) references ‘Kind Worries’ and our trepidation as practitioners to venture into life story work, we must accept those feelings and fly with them. Without any discussion, playfulness or questions asked about life stories, we are doing the young people we engage with a disservice.

Play is an essential method of engagement, whilst also being a way in which all participants (the care-experienced young people and their trusted adults, pastoral support workers and artists within the space) can feel at ease and learn to trust one another. It also provides a freedom and removes the pressure which can sometimes be felt in a space, allowing everyone to understand that we are embarking on this journey together.

Togetherness is the key.

“Children will struggle to play when their basic needs are not met or where the environments they live in are so constraining that they are unable to play. Schools can provide children with the access to time, space and permission for playing, which is an essential part of their everyday lives. This is particularly important for children who have their play restricted by factors such as poverty, domestic or environmental circumstances, recognising that with access to play opportunities children can enjoy their childhoods despite also experiencing financial and social disadvantage” (Long, 2017).

How do we encourage play within Creative Life Story Work?

Write the rules together – work with the young people to establish the rules of the space. This
establishes safety within the sessions and ensures everyone understands them, by collectively writing them.

Structure – ensure the sessions have the same start and finish times, with consistent breaks and timings where possible. This provides safety, understanding and a clear framework to your time together in the sessions. This means expectations are met and everyone knows the way in which a session will play out each time.

Repetition – repeat check in and check out activities which capture the young people’s imaginations. These can link to favourite football teams, topics you’ve talked about on previous occasions, emojis or anything that brings a chuckle!

Games – have a number of tried and tested games ready for each session. These could be throwing games aiming for a target, catch, using silly voices… the world is your oyster. Get the young people to lead the games. Encourage them to bring ideas to the sessions for other games which engage everyone. Involve everyone in the games. They should be light hearted and encourage togetherness. A little competitive game play is also encouraged, without too much onerous put on ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

Be human – we expect young people to share their life stories. It’s ok to share some of yours too. Think about the Social Pedagogy ‘Three Ps’. What are you sharing and why are you sharing it?

“Play as behaviour initiated, controlled and structured by children, as non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation, not a means to an end and that it has key characteristics of fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility and non-productivity” (UNCRC, 2013, pp.5–6).

About Nicola Golightly


Nicola is a professional artist, focusing on visual art and graphic design. Her work specialises in playful techniques for engagement and creative development, with collaboration and co-creation essential to its success. Nicola’s involvement in Creative Life Story Work has further expanded her practice and experience of working with care-experienced children and young people from all walks of life.

Further Reading


Michael Rosen’s Book of Play

The Importance of Play. Research by Dr David Whitebread 2012, Cambridge University

Children’s Right to Play

International Play Association